Goropizing: the use of incorrect etymologies.

Jan van Gorp van der Beke – or, to use his Latinized name: Johannes Goropius Becanus – was one of those brilliant Late Renaissance scholars: he was not just a physician, he was also interested in literature and linguistics. Unfortunately, in those days - Goropius lived from 1519 to 1572 - the study of language was still in its infancy, and this did little good to the reputation of Goropius.

Back then, many great scholars were interested in linguistics, and often, they had very strange ideas. For example, Hugo de Groot (“Grotius”) was convinced that the Americas had been colonized by people speaking a Germanic language, because many Aztec toponyms ended in /lan/, which "proved" that they were derived from Germanic /land/. A complete migration, unrecorded by ancient authors, could in this way be reconstructed.

This was a well-founded theory, compared to what Goropius used to say. He had claimed that all languages were derived from Dutch, or Diets, as the Dutch-speaking people themselves called their language. The name of that language itself already indicated its venerable age: Diets was to be derived from d’oudste, “the oldest”. In his Origines Antwerpianae, Goropius offered more curious etymologies. Still, it is too easy to call him a fool.

In the first place, this was the beginning of what was to become a true science: comparative linguistics. How silly Goropius’ fantasies may seem to us, he was a pioneer, who recognized that a comparison of languages might help to understand the distant past. Today, we still use the spread of languages to reconstruct ancient migrations. So, it is a bit unfair that the Antwerpian scholar is now remembered best in the verb "to goropize", which means that an etymology is far-fetched.

The expression is rare nowadays, because in the study of Indo-European languages, it has become rare to goropize. Unfortunately – and this is the second reason why we shouldn't laugh too loud – it still happens in the study of Semitic languages, in which it is very hard to distinguish meaningful and meaningless etymologies.

The problem is that Semitic words are based on roots of three consonants. For example, Arabic qrš means “to chew, to bite, to grind” and also “to earn money”. Many words are derived from it. Qirš can be a shark and a coin, qariš means cheese, while a mu-qriš is someone who has made a lot of money.

This system makes it very easy to goropize, because the number of consonants is very limited, while many sounds are exchangeable. There are four S-like sounds (sibilants) and two T-like sounds (dentals) that can be converted into each other. Something similar can be said about two Ks and the G. In nearly all languages, L and R resemble each other. It starts to look as if, in a system in which all words have three consonants, any word can be derived from any other word.

If in this way you cannot find the etymology you fancy, you can always look in related languages. Arabic is derived from an ancient language from which Hebrew and Syriac are also derived. It is certainly possible that in these languages, word meanings have survived that are lost in Arabic. If you don’t want to deduce the word for shark from qrš, because you don’t like the idea that qirš means “biting fish”, you can still deduce it from Hebrew qrš, “plank”, and construct an etymology in which the fish is likened to floating wood.

The writing system can make it even easier to goropize. Ancient and Medieval clerks in the Arab world did not write vowels: imagine a world where you cannot distinguish sane, son, sin, and sun. These writers also used similar signs to indicate consonants. Later, dots were added to the Arab alphabet, but until then, the B, T, TH, N, and Y were indistinguishable, and that also applies to J, H, and KH, to R and Z, and to F and Q.

In short, it is possible for a serious researcher to recognize an etymology that is completely credible and in accordance with the linguistic laws, but still incorrect. A similarity can indicate a real connection between two words but can also be just coincidence. This means that in the Semitic languages, etymology can only be used if it is accompanied by a statistical test. If it is not, like the Luxenberg Thesis on the origins of the Quran, we’re dealing with untested speculations.

Examples of pages with this issue

This page was created in 2014; last modified on 26 September 2020.