The Onion article in our “Language in the News Feature” about Mel Brooks trying to save the word schmuck reminded me of my first visit to Germany decades ago. I was stunned to see Schmuck on several stores in every town we visited. I could tell by the wares offered in these stores that the word meant “jewelry” in German. I immediately figured out that the meaning of this word in Yiddish came from the concept of “the family jewels”.
When we first entered Athens with a 7-year-old and 9-year-old in the back seat after 400-500 miles on the road, I was delighted to see autokatharsis (αυτοκάθαρσις) over the doors of many establishments. That was exactly what I needed after all those hours of frustration at thinking up funny answers to the questions, “Are we there yet” and “How much longer?” Actually, I wasn’t sure that it was self-catharsis that I needed; I actually felt that I needed help.
However, thanks to my knowledge of etymology (see, I told you it comes in handy), I soon figured that these establishments were car washes, not self-induced soul washes. Aristotle had passed and Greece was left with the original meaning of the word katharsis. (Αυτοκάθαρσις may have been a brand name since “carwash” seems to be πλυντήριο αυτοκινήτων in Greek today.)
These are the sorts of incidents that convinced me that much if not most of the history of our thought lies within the very words we use. At least words tell us much about ourselves and how we think about things and have thought about them over the centuries.