Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.11

Davide Del Bello, Forgotten Paths. Etymology and the Allegorical Mindset.   Washington, DC:  The Catholic University of America Press, 2007.  Pp. xvi, 187.  ISBN 978-0-8132-1484-9.  $64.95.  

Reviewed by Dunstan Lowe, University of Reading (
Word count: 985 words

Table of Contents

This could never have been a simple book. Although modern definitions separate them completely, allegory and etymology are both ways of reading for hidden meaning: from antiquity to the present, those who read texts for allegory and language for etymology have (in different ways) seen themselves as hierophants of truths hidden from the majority. An intellectual history of both practices together must therefore lead into extremely abstract territory. Del Bello aims to restore a lost appreciation for the long and varied tradition of etymologizing, most of which is given scant attention because (by the criteria of modern linguists) it is largely wrong. He argues that such etymology, or rather 'etymegoreia' (in Proclus' coinage),1 has borne a close affinity with allegory and deserves some of the attention which that concept currently enjoys among historians of literature and of the philosophy of language.

This book is not, therefore, about literary allegories themselves, but about a diverse series of opinions through the history of Western literature agreeing that etymology enables 'allegorical' insights into language and reading. It does involve a number of etymologies, in the form of exemplum or anecdote. The overall structure is methodical: the first chapter outlines the history of modern scientific etymology, then the rest arrange various key authors in a diachronic history of etymological hermeneutics. This book is really for aficionados of etymology-based intellectual inquiry, from pre-modern to post-modern, and not for beginners. There has been some Foucauldian 'genealogising' of etymology by historians of humanism, as the bibliography indicates (although Struever 1983 is for some reason not cited).2 Classicists may be interested most by its Theory-oriented discussions of Plato, Varro and Isidore of Seville, and by its argument that classical etymology laid the foundations for 'an etymologico-allegorical modus operandi' connecting later etymological enigmatists from Giambattista Vico to Derrida.

Vico formed the core of this book; the title comes from an article previously published by the author entitled 'Forgotten Paths: The Making of Vico's Etymology'.3 Chapter One summarises the modern history of etymology and reviews the scholarship in etymological theory; Chapter Two uses Proclus' term etymegoreia to begin a definition of the terms and concepts of etymology and allegory. Chapter Three, subtitled 'Greek and Alexandrian Etymologizing', discusses the Cratylus and looks briefly at Philo. Chapter Four assesses 'The Roman Contribution', a.k.a. Varro, arguing that he transformed etymology by suggesting a 'quartus gradus' of metaphysical insight, and presenting it as a way of mapping diverse and fundamental aspects of one's culture. Five addresses Isidore, Six the Renaissance. Chapter Seven somewhat unusually puts Vico together with de Man and Derrida, comparing the constructivist and the poststructuralists as representatives of two very different views of etymology. Vico still saw etymology as showing 'natural' principles of human thought. The big 'differance' is of course that the postmodern successors de Man and Derrida use etymology as an arena for semantic play, and in their hands it does not reveal the special mutual meanings of key terms which underpin the Western world of language, but instead voids them. Chapter Eight, 'Alternative Routes', is a brief conclusion suggesting that more work should be done to reinforce the 'thin and discontinuous' timeline of allegorical etymegoreia. It introduces Eve Sweetser's From Etymology to Pragmatics4 in a highly technical reiteration of the idea that etymology carries connotations beyond the merely linguistic.

On rare occasions Del Bello seems over-ready to defend the credibility of pre-scientific etymology. 'Two immediate objections can be raised against Cavazza and Baxter' (p. 54), who argue that the Socrates of the Cratylus is making fun of etymology: these are that etymology could not be attacked if it was not yet recognised as a discipline, and that the dialogue has a 'dialogic, heuristic thrust' (p. 58) which does not make a systematic case. It seems unnecessary to riposte so strenuously. Also, few would deny that 'allegorical' etymologising tells us much about the minds and milieux that produced them, a far more interesting point of inquiry than whether or not we agree with them. There is therefore no need to confuse different terms of value by once or twice defending the etymologies themselves (e.g. Vico's identification of lex, law, as originally meaning 'collection of acorns', in order to link it directly with ilex) by saying that many etymologies remain speculative (p. 154).

This book presents its material with admirable eloquence and imagination. Ranging as widely as Del Bello does through the most involved and difficult ancient and modern texts on semiotics and semantics, it is perhaps natural that he should sometimes prefer rhetorical gesture over clarity. Metaphors mix freely towards the ends of chapters, e.g. on p. 41-42:

'In the post-Cartesian debate, allegory becomes either a predictable two-level device that hides truth beneath a figurative, mystifying veil...or a potent, but annihilating, mechanism that parodies its own linguistic trappings and bemoans an unbridgeable gap from an unattainable "Other".'

There is also a slight tendency, in the collation of so much scholarly literature, to speak through the words of others rather than respond to them (especially on p. 117, where a full 56 words from Charles Trinkhaus conclude a paragraph), suggesting that the book originated as a PhD thesis, although it is in the main a highly engaged contribution to current debates. There are some typos (especially in non-English quotations), imprecisions in translation, and invented words.5 Six of the plates are clear, but that of Palatino's rebus-poem dove son gli occhi is illegible. There is a good index,6 in which the subheadings under 'Etymology' capture all of its charms: 'faulty; folk; obscure; popular; scholarly; uncertain'.

Although few will find it an easy read, this monograph does great service to the history of etymology by recasting it as a linguistic variant of allegory progressively transformed by science, and will be prized by many philosophers of language for undertaking a challenging intellectual journey through a diverse range of authors who are rarely read together.


1.   Proclus, In Cratylum 88. Although Del Bello employs the term frequently, the word is almost a hapax legomenon (although, curiously, it also appears to be the Greek title of John Grisham's novel A Time To Kill).
2.   Nancy Struever, 'Fables of Power', Representations 4 (1983) 173-185.
3.   Davide Del Bello, Semiotica 113 (1997) 171-88.
4.   Eve Sweetser, From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure (Cambridge 1990).
5.   Some accents are missing or misplaced in French and German quotations; Greek text is usually transcribed but sometimes transliterated. There are a several misprints, especially in the Greek (e.g. three times on p. 64 alone). Owing to the large amount quoted, most errors occur in the Latin (e.g. p. 82, p. 83 n. 30, p. 86, twice in p. 107 n. 43), notably 'fluius' for 'fluuius' four times on p. 88, 'sancta crucis' for 'sanctae crucis' on the inside rear of the dustjacket, and 'impatrare' for 'impetrare' both on p. 164 and in the index. Several Latin translations are misleading, e.g. p. 92: 'uis nos facere omnia cogit' means not 'to do everything force compels us' but 'force compels us to do everything'; p. 105: the rendering 'in (its?) interpretation' should not involve parentheses, since the Latin clearly reads in interpretatione sua. Odd coinages: p. 20 rapproachment; p. 59 perseverant; p. 94 etiologic; p. 164 divinate.
6.   Perhaps too good: because they are only mentioned in passing, Benveniste, Bopp and Bréal are in the index but not the bibliography.

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