Wednesday, October 24, 2012


The untergang of the abendlandes is earmarked by terminological confusion.  That is, it would be if untergangen had ears.  At least it is in terminological ferment, and ferment might make good beer, though usually it is dark and skunky.  (Skunky being a technical term in brewing that means....  Well, you can easily imagine what it means.  However, the good news, should you be desperate enough, is that no organism harmful to man can survive in beer, so while skunky beer may stink like a politician's promise, it won't make you sick.  Well, not physically.  Psychosomatically, who can say.  You can, however, hold your nose and quaff.)

Where was I?

Oh, yes.  The untergang.  (Yes, I know; but I only have to capitalize it if I am writing in german.)  German is a very expressive language; although it is impossible to say anything, even the most intimate of things, without sounding as if you are giving orders.
"Komm hier, meine Schatz'.  Ich liebe dich!"
"Jawohl, mein Herr!" 
Russian is different.  You cannot speak Russian without giving the impression that you are about to become violently ill.  There is even a vowel (Ы) which is pronounced as if one is about to up-chuck.

Expressive.  Yes.  In German, "environment" is die Umwelt which means literally "around-world".  And "superstition" is der Aberglaube ("but-belief").  "Charity" is Nächstenliebe ("next-love") and "fact" is die Tatsache ("deed-matter"), which brings us circumloquatiously to today's topic. 

A great deal of the heart-ache of modern life is due to a loss of terminological rigor.  (The loss of other sorts of rigor is another topic; and you likely receive copious emails offering to help with it, so we need not do so here.)  Now, words are in constant flux.  "Motion" did not always mean "change of location" ("local motion.") exclusively.  "Progress" once meant only "forward spatial motion." And the terms "artist" and "artisan" began to part company only in the early 19th century.
Now sometimes these changes are neutral.  "Modern" once meant merely "today" but expanded by analogy to its, well, modern meaning.  Sometimes, they are beneficial: starting in the Industrial Age, artists and artisans really did become two different things, and two distinct words were helpful.  The sort of artisan who specializes in paintings, bronze-casting, marble sculpture, and the like is different from the sort of artisan who specializes in fortifications, siege engines, and water-works; although both sorts work with their hands, which was once the crucial distinction.  DaVinci, who did both, preceded the distinction.  He was not an artist in the sense of the modern category of thought, "artist." 

But sometimes linguistic change really does muddy things up and makes important distinctions harder to make.  This will be the case when two different words converge on the same meaning.  An example is the way weremann (male human being) lost its prefix and became indistinguishable from mann (human being simpliciter).  The latter root is related to manna and manitou or spirit, which indicates that early humans recognized more clearly what distinguished them from beasts. 

And for that matter, once artists were distinguished from artisans, the importance of craftsmanship in the arts rapidly declined.  Words have consequences. 
Deed and Fact
The word fact come from the participle of a verb: factum est, "that which has the property of having been accomplished," from facere, "to make or do," and factum was used to mean "an event, occurrence."  The term was cognate with feat, which came to us from the same Latin root after a French detour.  The root meaning is still apparent in the corresponding German term Tatsache, mentioned earlier.  When Jane Austen wrote "gracious in fact if not in word" she meant "he acted more graciously than he spoke." 

John Lukacs
Fact thus had a concrete meaning - actual deeds performed; it was not simply an abstract category of thought.  The usual modern sense of "thing known to be true" (derived from the notion of "something that has actually occurred") appeared only in the 1630s, well into the Early Modern Age.  But not until the early 20th century did the modern usage triumph, and people could say silly things like "the theory of evolution is a fact" or (in a 1957 article Lukacs mentions) "it is a fact that by 1970 we will have put a permanent colony on the moon."  Well, good luck with that.  But fact has no future tense.  Something that is expected to happen in the future is not something with "the property of having been accomplished."  And a theory - which is a relation of facts - is not itself a fact, no matter how well founded and supported it may be.  The same set of facts can support several mutually contradictory theories. 

Curiously, as the term fact became more science-oriented, it started to become less reliable.  It is not at all unusual these days to see estimates from samples or outputs of computer models cited as "facts."  Well, they have been fabricated, no doubt.  They do have the property of having been made.  But they are hardly what the Scientific Revolutionaries had in mind: "produced by deliberate experiment or by direct observation."  Bacon, Hume and the others did not expect that the Revolution would eat its young.  It is not a fact that such-and-so many species go extinct each day, or that the population of the Greater Lehigh Valley is this-and-many.  No one has actually counted them.  These are estimates created by models.

The Truth Will Set You Free
Truth is not fact and fact is not truth.  While it might be argued that all facts are true -- which is not factually true, since some facts are found later to be mistaken -- not all truths are facts.
  • The Beach Boys prophesied "Be true to your school."
  • My grandfather laid a true line of bricks.  
  • The metrologist specified true positioning on the drawing.  
  • Samwise Gamgee was a true friend.  
  • Horatio stood true on the bridge.  
  • The ship laid a bearing on true north. 
  • Bill and Jane promised to be true to one another.  
  • And despite Lola's wiles, Bill remained true to Jane. 
A correspondent once complained that these were subordinate meanings of true, but he had the matter precisely backward.  These reflect the true meaning of truth, and it is the equation of truth with a certain kind of fact that represents muddy and imprecise thought, even if that is the common street usage.

Especially if it is the common usage in the modern street.  

All Others Pay Cash
Truth is related to trust and therefore to faith. 

Truth is an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable, and therefore regarded with disfavor and avoided whenever possible.   It comes from triewð (W.Saxon), or treowð (Mercian), meaning "faithfulness." Starting in the 1560s it began to mean "accuracy, correctness." (Oddly, there is no word in English that means "to speak the truth," although there is one that means "to speak the false," viz., lie.)  Truth came from true:  triewe (W.Saxon), treowe (Mercian) "faithful, trustworthy," from P.Gmc. *trewwjaz, "having or characterized by good faith." 

Now, a fact, insofar as it is fact, is trustworthy, and therefore true.  But not every truth is factual.  Chesterton once said that Beauty and the Beast is true even though none of the events in the fable are fact.  The truth of it is that sometimes someone must be loved before he becomes lovable. 

The Truth Will Fret, You See
If true means faithful, this leads naturally to the meaning of faith.

Faith is a mid-13cent. word meaning "duty of fulfilling one's trust," from Old French feid, foi, "faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge," which comes in turn from Latin fides, meaning "trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief," the root being fidere, "to trust."  To have faith in something is therefore to put your trust in it.  Hence, if you trust scientists to perform their experiments and interpret and report their results correctly, you are said to have faith in science.  (Although, more correctly, you have faith in scientists.  Expressed that way, some may come to doubt their faith to the extent they know human nature.) 

Thus, faith is simply the Latinate equivalent of the Germanic truth.  When this is understood, we also understand what Cristoph Cardinal Schönborn meant when he said that the Church too rejected "blind faith."
"A blind faith, one that would simply demand a leap into the utter void of uncertainty, would be no human faith."

Faith, to be genuine, cannot be blind.  Trust/faith must be rooted in something: direct experience, observation, experiment, or the testimony of reliable witnesses.  In the Martin Luther King quote, the entire staircase may be unseen, but the first step is not.  

I believe I'll have another beer.
"Every Man Should Believe in Something,"
said W.C.Fields, adding, "I believe I'll have another beer."  

The contrast between fact and truth is sometimes compared to that between fact and belief.  Now, one must believe in facts, but there is a school of lazy, colloquial thought that believes that with facts in hand belief is not necessary.  But of course as Lukacs and others have pointed out, facts have no meaning or value in themselves, but only as they stand in relation to other facts and to some context or theory.  (This is over and above the usual problems of actually measuring something.  I have seen several values for the height of Mt. Everest.)  Now facts in relationship one to another is a construction of the facts, and the term for a construction is fictio.  You can see where that one is going.  You have to construe the facts.  The way Poincare put it, a pile of facts is not a science any more than a pile of bricks is a house.  The facts (bricks) have to be arranged into some form.  (And there are those formal causes again.) 

Belief is late 12th cent., bileave, which replaced the standard Germanic intensifier ge- with bi- in the Old English geleafa ("belief, faith") which in root meant "to hold dear, esteem, trust." (Compare the German equivalent die Glaube, from *galaub- "dear, esteemed," which is the intensive prefix *ga- plus *leubh- "to care, desire, like, love."  So, believed is cognate with beloved and a belief is a truth that is loved.

(Truth = Faith) + Love = Belief

Now one can argue that these meanings are archaic and therefore (Old is Bad!  That is soo last week!) of no use to us up-to-date modern hipsters.(*) 

But one can argue more cogently, unlike the colloquialist, that these are the meanings that were very much in play when most of the discussion originated and doctrines and the like formulated.  The meanings are still there.  They are only papered over with the detritus of common speech, to the confusion of learned discourse. If this is not what people mean when they say truth or faith or belief, it only indicates that they do not know what they are talking about.  As if scientists at a meeting were to replace all of their terms with "stuff."

(*)hipsters.  Another word that has been changing meaning.  I am using it in the 60s meaning.  

The Two Faces of Truth
The philosophical theories of Truth have put forward two basic kinds: correspondence and coherence.
  1. Truth of Correspondence: means a proposition is true insofar as it corresponds to a standard.  The truth of physical science is correspondence to the physical facts.  The truth of history is a correspondence to historical facts.  The truth of a verdict is its correspondence to the actual guilt or innocence of the accused. 
  2. Truth of Coherence: means a proposition is true insofar as it corresponds to other propositions within the same discourse.  The truth of a mathematical theorem is its coherence within the axiom-system.  
Remarkably, the mathematical truths correspond rather well to scientific ones.  But then "all truth is one." Science is said to be "true to fact" and a novel is said to be "true to life" without contradiction on the word true.  The word True is thus in this fashion a kind of verb, just as Fact/Deed is.  One must be true TO something: a standard, a spouse, a cause, a coordinate system, a baseline.  It is only when we compress "true to fact" into "true" that lose sight of the truth/fact distinction and thus make our speech a little coarser.  

By Their Deeds You Will Know Them
And to close the circle, we need only note that a Faith/Truth+Belief can be practiced.  A man who believes in science (whose trust that science is true rises to a love) would naturally seek to practice it, and perform thereby scientific deeds.  Just as a lover of history, who believes in the power of history to illuminate the human condition, will research old documents and artifacts in search of historical facts.  So if a man falsifies his data, misrepresents his results, or extrapolates beyond the bounds of the metrical properties of physical bodies -- or even if he is inept and sloppy -- we may well question whether he is a true scientist, that is, whether he trustworthy as a scientist.  (Not a trick question: the answer is no.) 

Feel free to substitute for science whichever faith/truth/belief you please. 

  1. John Lukacs.  "Facts and Fictions" in Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (Transaction Publishers, 1985) pp. 98 et seq.
  2. Online Etymological Dictionary
  3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Truth


  1. Nächstenliebe ("next-love")

    Great post. So many of today's "science is real" types pretend to rationality without the slightest awareness of true reason. I believe Socrates had a term for such behavior: sophistry.

    By the way, Nächstenliebe actually means "love of neighbor", not "love of next". (Der Nächste = "neighbor"; cf. "Du sollst deinen Nächsten lieben wie dich selbst", Mark 12:29)

    1. Ja, aber der Nächste ist doch meine Nachbar! Growing up on German Hill, we had an expression: "next-door neighbor." (I also had a "cellar-door cousin," for what that's worth.)

  2. Strewth, mate!

    To add further fool to the fire: is not Nächste 'nearest'? In the same way as 'neighbour' is one whose 'bour' (farm = Afrik. 'boer') is 'nigh' on yours.

  3. Once upon a time, "progress" meant the king's going on a trip around his kingdom.

  4. I'm a fellow etymology-phile ( although not nearly as accomplished as you) and I loved this post!


    Did you really say that manitou and manna come from the same root word? I really think that's a stretch. Manitou is an American Indian word. And, while a suppose it is possible that the root of that word was spoken by a prehistoric common ancestor of the American Indian and the Hebrew people, I think it far more likely that the reason the two words sound similar is a happy convergence. I'd be really excited if the two words were related, don't get me wrong, but just think it isn't that likely.

    1. There is a theory of a Eurasiatic-Amerind macro-family, by no means universally accepted, however.

    2. Hmmm.... Well, you learn something every day.

  5. "The latter root is related to manna and manitou or spirit, which indicates that early humans recognized more clearly what distinguished them from beasts." Is this a "dogs have no soul"-type statement? As far as I know more and more animals are seen as not simply aware, but self-aware. Not just food for thought about how we should treat animals. Evidently consciousness and self-awareness are positions on a scale rather than an on-off state. So which creatures we perceive as having a soul, or whether an entity such as a soul which is believed to exist independently of the body is a category that leads to anything productive in ethics, science or even your faith. Unless your faith tells you your soul is the only thing of value you posess, you might feel that you're being fed hot air instead of substance.
    Bit of a tangent to the post, I concur. Aside from all this, I am a firm believer in the fact that ultimately everything a person holds as true about the world is a belief, including this belief. I'm in hot pursuit of any belief that gets things done, by the way. Such as the belief that the set of beliefs that scientists adhere to are by and large the most succesfull ones both in explaining the world, the (absence) of meaning therein, and in keeping me alive and well.

    1. Of course, puppies have souls. So do petunias. "Soul" is a translation of "anima," which means "alive, animate." So whether an entity has a soul is to ask whether it is alive. Details can be found here:

      What has this to do with "self-aware" or "conscious"?

  6. I think I was referring to the Descartes type of soul. Which from the line I quoted from your post I gathered you were referring to also. Did Descartes think petunias owned a soul?

    1. Nah,just riffin'. Descartes was messed up. There is a ghost in the machine like there is a sphere in the basketball.
      Here's some more stuff:


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