The Historian and the Etymologist: An Experimental Twitter Essay

In the spirit of experimenting with media, I recently wrote an academic essay on Twitter. Because why not? Let’s play a little with form.
Rather than writing it ahead of time and posting it after-the-fact in 140ish-character chunks (that seemed contrary to the spirit of the medium, which is about immediacy and simultaneity of writing/reading and nowness and against significant editing) I published each set of thoughts as Tweets in (or close to) real-time. I wasn’t sure at the start how long it would be. Ideally, this would be meaningful if read forwards (from the bottom of the Twitter screen up) and backwards (from the top down), but it works somewhat better when read in the order in which it was posted. Incidentally, I learned a lot in this process…
The essay is “bound” by the hashtag #etym1
I’m on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/CarlaNappi

Some things learned:
– Next time, the form should incorporate participation/feedback from others as the essay is being written/posted.
– Fundamental to this form is a creation of meaning by reading across the blanks in the narrative
– The extension of a Twitter essay in time is necessary (…or is it?…) to convey an argument or narrative, but this extension of the essay in the form of discrete, immediate, successive posts over time is *very*, very tricky: we are different selves with different understandings and concepts at different times, and these selves don’t necessarily follow coherently on one another.
– I definitely want to experiment with this format again, and change it up completely. Stay tuned…
Here’s a reproduction of the Tweets in the original posting order, and then backwards:
1. Why is etymology such a powerful form of historical evidence? #etym1
2. Not powerful, exactly. (In fact it’s very problematic.) But it is ubiquitous among historians.  #etym1
3. We accept the use of etymology as powerful evidence for kinds of claims that it doesn’t really make sense to use etymology to prove. #etym1
4. Though not from a historian, here’s a recent example of this phenomenon: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4341 See what I mean? #etym1
5. This seduction of etymology as explanation seems to be related to the authority of the dictionary, and to its form. #etym1
6. Alphabetical arrangement, with the alphabet functioning as a seemingly uncontroversial and disinterested mode of categorizing… #etym1
7. Short entries with modular bits that can be easily excerpted, rearranged, and quoted… #etym1
8. Fairly open access, easy and quick to use…  #etym1
9. The etymological dictionary arranges language in time. As does the historian. #etym1
10. Like a lawyer or a Greek chorus, the historian is always searching for a precedent. #etym1
11. That’s adapted from Anne Carson’s _Antigonick_. As is this: #etym1
12. We’re not at a loss without guidance. There is a pattern… #etym1
13. It’s an attempt to find meaning, to find a path, in language in time. #etym1
14. The dictionary holds your hand, steers you toward a path. #etym1
15. Paths can take us astray in space. Here, they can lead us astray in time. #etym1
16. An etymological dictionary is a kind of narrative history. #etym1
17. The word is a character, its temporal shifts are the plot, the years of those shifts marking crises in the life of the protagonist. #etym1
18. An etymological dictionary is a kind of natural history. #etym1
19. The word is an organism, its meanings are its characteristics, its marked locations in time the fossil traces of its evolutions. #etym1
20. An etymological dictionary is a kind of biographical history. #etym1
21. The word is something born, its “original” meaning(s) marking its point of widest potential and its location in a wider society.  #etym1
22. …But the meaning of a word is not something concrete and singular that can be isolated and categorized and ordered. #etym1
23. Meaning is a practice, an activity, a performance. #etym1
24. …But the notion of an “original” meaning doesn’t tell us how a word and its meanings are or should be practiced in other contexts. #etym1
25. …But the word/character in a dictionary’s narratives is plucked out and inserted into other stories. (The further adventures of…) #etym1
26. In engaging a dictionary in historiographical practice, a narrative and its elements become a form of historical proof. #etym1
27. Ought we accept the narrative of a word as proof for how it should be used now? #etym1
28. Why is etymology such a powerful form of historical evidence? #etym1
27. Ought we accept the narrative of a word as proof for how it should be used now? #etym1
26. In engaging a dictionary in historiographical practice, a narrative and its elements become a form of historical proof. #etym1
25. …But the word/character in a dictionary’s narratives is plucked out and inserted into other stories. (The further adventures of…) #etym1
24. …But the notion of an “original” meaning doesn’t tell us how a word and its meanings are or should be practiced in other contexts. #etym1
23. Meaning is a practice, an activity, a performance. #etym1
22. …But the meaning of a word is not something concrete and singular that can be isolated and categorized and ordered. #etym1
21. The word is something born, its “original” meaning(s) marking its point of widest potential and its location in a wider society.  #etym1
20. An etymological dictionary is a kind of biographical history. #etym1
19. The word is an organism, its meanings are its characteristics, its marked locations in time the fossil traces of its evolutions. #etym1
18. An etymological dictionary is a kind of natural history. #etym1
17. The word is a character, its temporal shifts are the plot, the years of those shifts marking crises in the life of the protagonist. #etym1
16. An etymological dictionary is a kind of narrative history. #etym1
15. Paths can take us astray in space. Here, they can lead us astray in time. #etym1
14. The dictionary holds your hand, steers you toward a path. #etym1
13. It’s an attempt to find meaning, to find a path, in language in time. #etym1
12. We’re not at a loss without guidance. There is a pattern… #etym1
11. That’s adapted from Anne Carson’s _Antigonick_. As is this: #etym1
10. Like a lawyer or a Greek chorus, the historian is always searching for a precedent. #etym1
9. The etymological dictionary arranges language in time. As does the historian. #etym1
8. Fairly open access, easy and quick to use…  #etym1
7. Short entries with modular bits that can be easily excerpted, rearranged, and quoted… #etym1
6. Alphabetical arrangement, with the alphabet functioning as a seemingly uncontroversial and disinterested mode of categorizing… #etym1
5. This seduction of etymology as explanation seems to be related to the authority of the dictionary, and to its form. #etym1
4. Though not from a historian, here’s a recent example of this phenomenon: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4341 See what I mean? #etym1
3. We accept the use of etymology as powerful evidence for kinds of claims that it doesn’t really make sense to use etymology to prove. #etym1
2. Not powerful, exactly. (In fact it’s very problematic.) But it is ubiquitous among historians.  #etym1
1. Why is etymology such a powerful form of historical evidence? #etym1
**

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Categories: Essay, Short piece, Text

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