The true meaning of words

If I have more than a few seconds to spare when looking up a word in a dictionary, then I don’t look at the definition but at the etymology of the word. (The Oxford English Dictionary  is particularly great for it.) The reason is that it is the roots of the word that give the true sense of what the meaning of the word in a particular context may have been and how best to use in the future when a chance is presented. 

This particular habit of mine made a lot more sense when I read Barry Smith’s thoughts on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical work:

What are the conditions for something to be called a game? How do we use the word “game”? How do we define it? Wittgenstein points out that any set of conditions that you come up with which are supposed to define the meaning of the word “game” will fail to cover some cases that we happily recognise as cases of games.

So football is a game with winners and losers, teams and a ball. So is baseball. But a game may be just one person throwing a ball against a wall and catching it: with no winning or losing. Ring-a-ring-a-roses played by children is a kind of game, but it’s not even about getting better at doing something. It seems to be just about the repetition of an activity over and over again.

So, what is it that all of these cases have in common that makes them all equally covered by that term? Wittgenstein’s answer is not going to be a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions; rather, there is going to be a family resemblance between the activities of one game and another, as in the way that members of a family might resemble each other and have more or less distant resemblances to other members of the family.

This analogy can be extended to find the changes in the meanings of words. Words often get redefined during their usage, just as individuals gain new characteristics as they grow older.

The essence of etymology has never been clearer to me.


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