Historically correct etymology a rarity

Ancient & Modern

“Historically correct etymology a rarity”

quoniam una hora destitutae sunt tantae divitiae, et omnis gubernator et omnis qui in locum navigat, et nautae et qui maria operantur, longe steterunt et clamaverunt videntes locum incendii eius

“For in a single hour enormous riches were destroyed, and every helmsman and every person who sails there, both sailors and those who work the seas, stood far off wailing at the sight of that place (viz. Babylon) burning.”

Revelations (Latin Vulgate) 17.1-18.2

In certain kinds of lexical formations historically accurate etymology counts for little, which may or may not be a good thing, but it is certainly common enough.  Think of the term “droid”, which is nothing more than an innocent “android” so savagely front-clipped that the integrity of its two individual lexical constituents andr- (‘man’) and -oid- (‘shaped, formed like’) is impudently violated by a false and swaggering morphemic analysis into “an-droid.”

Curiously enough, Homer adumbrates the development of what we may well think of as cybernetic organisms. He notes in passing (Iliad 18.373-377) that Hephaistos, the clever god of fire, and a supreme craftsman, was in the habit of fashioning (ἔτευχεν) gilded robots in the shape of tripods that rolled, if not exactly like radio-controlled models, at least to his personal bidding (οἱ hoi ‘for him’), on wheels; they were called αὐτόματοι automatoi ‘self-walking’, and they were a θαῦμα ỉδέσθαι thauma idesthai ‘marvel to behold’.

To my knowledge, this is the earliest mention of automata or proto-cyborg-like units in Western literature.  That little point aside, these concepts, along with all the marvels, or (as some – but not I – might say) horrors, of today’s computers and computer-based systems, are of course thoroughly modern.  And yet it is unmistakable that both terminologically and in the imagination this vast cybernetic technology is deeply beholden to antiquity:  ever buy an Amiga back in the day with a Hercules graphics card?

Homer uses κυβερν- (kubern-) words in their primary sense of sailing, or guiding, ships, as at Odyssey 9.78, where the wind and κυβερνῆται (kubernētai ‘helmsmen’) steer the ships of Odysseus’ men in a straight direction.  By Pindar’s day in the fifth century, semantic extensions of the word are already in evidence, as in his metaphorical reference to the poet “guiding” his song of praise like a helmsman (Pythian 1.91), or the political governance of cities (Pythian 10.72: κυβερνάσιες kubernasies).

Thucydides exploits this association in his History of the Peloponnesian War when he has Pericles, hawkishly arguing against peace with Sparta, note (I.143.i.5) that the Athenians have κυβερνήτας … πολίτας (kubernētas … politas  ‘citizens as steersmen’) to a greater extent than any other Greek state.  The expression taps a culturally embedded analogy that tacitly equates the domain of seafaring and governing.

But it is in Plato that this alliance finds its full flowering.  Not only is Plato fond of using analogies of seafaring and helmsmen to technically skilled “regulators” of various sorts (e.g., Theages 123b3-8 [wisdom], Alcibiades I 117c9-d6 [knowledge], etc.), but he also explicitly deploys images of the steering of ships and the helmsman’s art in discussing the forms of governing of polities (e.g., Politicus 296e4-297a5, Respublica 551c2-11, etc.).

The Romans latinized Greek κυβερν- (kubern-) to gubern-, as in gubernaculum ‘steering-oar’, gubernare ‘steer, control’, gubernator ‘pilot, governor’, and so forth, and used these derivatives at least as widely as the Greeks did their κυβερν- words.  The phrase in the Latin Vulgate cited above at the start of this blog entry (et omnis gubernator), for example, is a direct translation (by St. Jerome in the fourth century CE) from the New Testament koinē of καὶ πᾶς κυβερνήτης (kai pas kubernētēs ‘and every helmsman’).  We thus come full and seamless circle, so to speak, from this very ancient pre-Greek non-Indo-European root freighted with the sense of seafaring to the early formative period of Christianity.

And you have of course figured out by now what the source for all our govern- words is.  Thus, Terry Branstad, the current governor of Iowa, is in the etymologically primitive if geographically inappropriate sense of the word, the “helmsman” of our landlocked state (an excellent example of ‘semantic broadening’!).  And returning to ‘cybernetics’ we may note that a ‘governor’ is also a kind feedback device that functions as a mechanical regulator on various types of machinery.

Let’s conclude by thinking about the zany lexical elasticity of this term ‘cybernetics’.  There is, obviously, the back-clipped cyber- that has taken on a faintly minatory, post-modernist vitality of its own, as in cyber-punk, cyber-rock, cyber-space cyber-sex, and (my own coinage for the flood of spam offers that promise to balance my checkbook and also explain the full mystery of the universe for $39.99 plus shipping and handling) cyber-trash.

A heartless plunderer could carve ut a fancy jargon from ‘cybernetics’ – like the clips and blends ‘yber’, ‘bern’, ‘netic’, ‘bertic’, ‘ernet’, ‘netics’, etc. etc – all up for arbitrary assignments of definition.  How about a new software company like syncopated ‘Cyrnics’?

Remember, you saw it here first.

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