The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville edited by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof

Cambridge, pp.488, 85

Scholars who want to accuse others of ignorant obscurantism have long taunted them with the phrase lucus a non lucendo. This is supposed to exemplify the stupidest kind of concocted etymology, and here it is in Book XVII of Isidore’s stout old compilation: ‘A “sacred grove” (lucus) is a dense thicket of trees that lets no light come to the ground, named by way of antiphrasis because it “sheds no light” (non lucere).’

So, if Isidore was so dim, why should anyone be interested, after 1,400 years, in an English translation of his magnum opus, The Etymologies? First because we have missed something big. The Etymologies was one of the most influential books from the time of its compilation around the year 620 until into the Renaissance and beyond. His book was one of the first to be printed, with 11 editions published before 1500. The span of its career is suggested by Chaucer quoting it when it was already older than the centuries that have elapsed between Chaucer and the present day. It penetrated all Europe; fragments survive of a seventh-century manuscript written in an Irish hand at the monastery of St Gall, in what is now Switzerland.

This extraordinary mix of encyclopaedia and dictionary must be the most historically important work never to have been translated into English until this fine collaborative work. Compare another great book that few read now, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, already translated by King Alfred 1,100 years ago (and again, rather badly, by the young Elizabeth I). Even the Pseudo-Dionysius, now of minority interest but once in every mediaeval library, is available in a popular paperback English version.

Isidore was active at the time St Augustine of Canterbury was labouring to get Christianity into the heads of the barbarian English. Isidore was in a similar position. As Archbishop of Seville he was dealing with Visigothic kings who had only just been weaned off the sub-Christian heresy of Arianism. If the Dark Ages ever gave way to anything lighter, it was only because men like Isidore gathered their word-hoards from the ancients and bequeathed them to their successors. His contemporary reputation was as an heir of antiquity.

12 issues for £12

For Isidore, learning and Latin were equivalents. He knew some Greek and discussed a few words of Hebrew that he found in Jerome. But one strand of The Etymologies was to refine Latin vocabulary in order to establish the right choice of word for the right thing.

More ambitiously, the 20 books of The Etymologies divide up the universe analytically. They work down from grammar at the outset, via God and his angels, the Earth and all it contains, to men’s wars, ships, furniture, food and clothes. Picking up from Aristotle, it gave a lead to philosophical analysts of later centuries, such as Ramon Lull (1235-1315), John Wilkins (1614-72) of the Royal Society, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), and the now demeaned Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869).              

Isidore, beyond providing definitions, distinguishes specific differences between items in the universe, to match the different words that signify them. But implicitly he retains a belief that an etymology (etymos in Greek meaning ‘true’) gives the true meaning of a word, as we still do in discussion today, though hazily aware of the fallacy. The problem with Isidore is that almost half his etymologies are incorrect, and his success rate is not helped by a compulsion to preserve ancient authorities even when he knows they must be awry. Accurate etymologies are the work of the 19th century, building on work such as that of the Grimm brothers on the science of sound-changes. Samuel Johnson’s etymologies, a generation before, had been hopeless.

The sort of thing we find in Isidore is: ‘The walking stick (baculus) is said to have been invented by Bacchus, the discoverer of the grape vine, so that people affected by wine might be supported by it.’ Wrong but wromantic. In this respect Isidore is like Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: he provides what people of his time ‘thought’ was the origin of expressions. This is historically fascinating.

As for lucus a non lucendo I have heard it attributed to Varro (116-27 BC), though I canot find it in his surviving work. (It is certainly to be found in the fourth-century commentary on the Aeneid by Servius, one of Isidore’s authorities.) Doubts about its truth appeared early. ‘Are we to admit the derivation of certain words from their opposites, and accept lucus a non lucendo, since a grove is dark with shade?’ asked Quintilian (AD 35-100).

The last laugh is that a present-day scientific etymological dictionary of Latin like Ernout and Meillet does find a connection between lucus, no matter how dark it is, and lucendo. Both come from the Indo-European root leuk- that gives us Old English leah, ‘wood’ or ‘clearing’, as well as Latin lux, lumen and luna. Isidore was brighter than his shady detractors.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated