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Isidore of Seville

The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville translated with introduction and notes by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof [Hardcover] (Cambridge University Press) is a complete English translation of the Latin Etymologies of Isidore, Bishop of Seville (c.560-636). Isidore compiled the work between c.615 and the early 630s and it takes the form of an encyclopedia, arranged by subject matter. It contains much lore of the late classical world beginning with the Seven Liberal Arts, including Rhetoric, and touches on thousands of topics ranging from the names of God, the terminology of the Law, the technologies of fabrics, ships and agriculture to the names of cities and rivers, the theatrical arts, and cooking utensils. Isidore provides etymologies for most of the terms he explains, finding in the causes of words the underlying key to their meaning. This book offers a highly readable translation of the twenty books of the Etymologies, one of the most widely known texts for a thousand years from Isidore's time.

Excerpt: We are pleased to present the first complete English translation from the Latin of Isidore's Etymologies. Isidore, Bishop of Seville, compiled the Etymologies (also known as the Origins) in the late teens and twenties of the seventh century, and left it nearly complete at his death in 636. In the form of an encyclopedia, it contains a compendium of much of the essential learning of the ancient Greco-Roman and early Christian worlds. In his important study of the Latin literary culture of medieval Europe, Ernst Robert Curtius spoke of the Etymologies as serving "the entire Middle Ages as a basic book. It was arguably the most influential book, after the Bible, in the learned world of the Latin West for nearly a thousand years.

To get an idea of what a seventh-century Irish monk, or a lecturer at a cathedral school in the eleventh century, or an Italian poet of the fourteenth century, or a lexicographer of the sixteenth century could learn from the Etymologies, one might pick a bit of lore from each of the twenty books in which the work has come down to us. From Isidore, then, we learn that:

  • Caesar Augustus used a code in which he replaced each letter with the following letter of the alphabet, b for a, etc. (I.xxv.2).
  • Plato divided physics into four categories: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy (II.xxiv.4).
  • The term 'cymbal' derives from the Greek words for "with" and "dancing,"
  • A physician needs to know the Seven Liberal Arts of Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy (III.xiii.1-4.)
  • In ancient times execution by sword was preferred as speedier (V.xxvii.35)
  • Architects use green Carystean marble to panel libraries, because the green refreshes weary eyes (VI.xi.2).
  • Esau had three names, meaning "red" (for the stew he made), "bloody" (for his complexion), and "hairy" (VII.vi.33-34).
  • Aristotle says that Zoroaster, the first magician, composed two million verses
  • A soldier (miles) is so called because once there were a thousand (mille) in one troop (IX.iii.32).
  • The word for a garrulous person (garrulus) derives from the name of the constantly chattering bird, the jackdaw (graculus) (X.114).
  • In the womb, the knees (genua) are pressed against the face, and help to form the eye-sockets (genae); hence their name (XI.i.108).
  • The ibis purges itself by spewing water into its anus with its beak (XII.vii.33)•
  • Because of its brightness, lightning reaches the eyes before thunder reaches the ears (XIII.viii.2).
  • Gaul is so named from the whiteness of its people, for "milk" in Greek (XIV.iv.25).
  • Minerva is 'Athena' in Greek; she is reputed to be inventor of many arts because various arts, and philosophy itself, consider the city of Athens their temple (XV.i.44).
  • Amber is not the sap of the poplar, but of pine, because when burned it smells like pine pitch (XVI.viii.6).
  • An altar was dedicated in Rome to Stercutus, who brought the technique of dunging (stercorare) fields to Italy (XVII.i.3).
  • The battering ram takes its name 'ram' from its character, because it butts walls (XVIII.xi.i).
  • The women of Arabia and Mesopotamia wear the veil called theristrum even today as a protection from heat (XIX.xxv.6).
  • Wine (vinum) is so called because it replenishes the veins (vena) with blood (XX.ii.2).

The character of the Etymologies

Internal evidence alone defines the method and purpose of the Etymologies, because apart from the brief dedication to Sisebut (appended Letter VI) no statement from Isidore survives. Obviously he compiled the work on the basis of extensive notes he took while reading through the sources at his disposal. Not infrequently he repeats material verbatim in different parts of the work; either he copied extracts twice or he had a filing system that allowed multiple use of a bit of information. Presumably he made his notes on the slips of parchment that he might have called schedae: "A scheda is a thing still being emended, and not yet redacted into books" (VI.xiv.8).

The guess that Isidore had help from a team of copyists (Fontaine, 1966:526) finds some support in the fact that some errors of transmission may indicate that Isidore was using excerpts poorly copied or out of context, perhaps excerpts made by a collaborator. Although these could result from Isidore's own copying error or failure of memory, they are suggestive. At XVII.iv.10, for example, he misconstrues Servius's comment on Aeneid 6.825, taking the phrase Pisaurum dicitur, "the city of Pesaro is so called . . . ," as if it were pis aurum dicitur, "pis means gold" - there is no Latin word pis. Again, at XVII.vii.67 occurs another misreading of Servius (on Georgics 2.88), taking types of pears as olives. Most telling in this connection is a confusion at XVI.iii.3:

Crepido (i.e. 'a projection, promontory') is a broken-off extremity of rock, whence a height of sheer rock is called crepido, as in (Vergil, Aeneid 10.361): Toot (pes) presses against foot' - whence it is so called.

The place in Servius from which the information "crepido is a height of broken-off rock" is drawn actually is a comment on Aeneid 10.653, where the word crepido occurs. In the course of his comment, Servius cites in another connection Aeneid 10.361, which does not involve the term crepido but rather exemplifies a grammatical point. The error could be Isidore's own, but it could easily be attributed to an assistant's truncating the excerpt so as to leave the wrong line from Vergil as the authenticating illustration of the use of the term. It appears that Isidore then turned the error into an etymology, deriving crepido from pes, gen. pedis. These instances are from Servius, whose organization followed the text of Vergil rather than an alphabetical or topical arrangement, and whose information was hence more difficult to extract and reorder than the materials in Pliny or Cassiodorus, and thus more liable to errors of this kind.

Explicit evidence about the purpose of the Etymologies is scant.  In a few places Isidore indicates that he will treat "what ought to be noted" (notandum) about a topic," but seldom does he explain why. In Book II, following Cassiodorus, he several times remarks on the usefulness of knowing the logical disciplines for understanding books of both rhetoric and logic, avoiding the deception of false sophisms, and grasping the "clearly wonderful" power of gathering human inventiveness into a limited set of topics. Elsewhere he explains the symbols used for different weights, to keep a reader who might be ignorant of them from falling into error (XVI.xxvii.1). Thus he aims to furnish the material required for good reading and to provide schemas for managing discourse. In a few places he proposes aids for understanding the Bible: knowing the rationale of terms for numbers can elucidate scriptural mysteries; exposition of Hebrew names reveals their meaning; the patriarchs' names derive from intrinsic causes; the names of prophets can indicate what their words and deeds foretell; it is proper to know of cities whose origin is reported in Scripture (or in pagan histories). Again, he remarks that the most important of mountains and rivers - as celebrated in histories or in general opinion -should be known (XIII.xxi.6, XIV.viii.1).

A fuller sense of what Isidore was about, and for whom he wrote, may be gathered from who he was and what he did. His close relations with the Visigothic rulers, especially Sisebut, and his dedication of the Etymologies to Sisebut (himself a writer),52 imply that he wrote in part for the general literate governing class of his nation -those who might partake of and patronize a liberal education.53 The clergy, too, were among the main recipients of Isidore's attention - more obviously in some of his other works, but evidently in the Etymologies as well. His purpose was pastoral and pedagogical - he wished for his priests and monks to possess a general knowledge of what books make available, and to possess the preliminary skills that make intelligent reading especially of Scripture, possible. External evidence of Isidore's concern for education of the clergy is available he presided over the Council of Toledo in 633, and one of the decrees promulgated there commanded bishop to establish educational centers at each cathedral city of Spain. Bishop Braulio's claims that the Etymologies were written at his own request (Letter II and Renotatio) presume a clerical motive, and Braulio's sense of the Etymologies' purpose is to the point: "Whoever thoughtfully and thoroughly reads through this work ... will not be ignorant of the knowledge of human and divine matters, and deservedly so. Overflowing with eloquence of various arts with regard to nearly every point of them that ought to be known, it collects them in summarized form." The work, then, aims to gather what ought to be known, especially by a cleric, in a compendium.

More precisely, the form of the work indicates Isidore's intentions. It is written in easy Latin, in relentlessly utilitarian prose. At the outset it presents the Seven Liberal Arts, with an obviously propaedeutic motive. It is a storehouse, to be sure, but it also provides a reasonably sequential general education. The hundreds of citations illustrate the facts presented, but conversely they exemplify the kinds of reading, pagan and Christian, that the Etymologies can enrich. Generally the treatment is in continuous prose, not tables or lists, and its effort at pleasing variation — even when the facts presented are rather repetitive in form — implies a reader absorbing the work consecutively, even as its careful organization ensures access topic by topic to a reader looking for a particular fact. In an era when the gravest dangers to Christianity were thought to be intellectual errors, errors in understanding what one read — that is, heresies like Arianism — mastery of the language arts was the Church's best defense. Isidore's book constituted a little library for Christians without access to a rich store of books (it even incorporates a good deal of material from Isidore's own previous books) in order to furnish capable Christian minds.

Although a good number of statements in the Etymologies address particular Christian concerns, such statements amount to comments by the way when theologically incorrect ideas emerge in Isidore's sources. The core of the work is not apologetic but informational. Still, we find Isidore carefully denying such superstitions as that a turtle's foot on board retards the progress of a ship (XII.vi.56), or that the stars have predictive power — "These [horoscopes] are undoubtedly contrary to our faith, and so they ought to be ignored by Christians, so that these things are not seen to be written up" (III.lxxi.38). Reporting that augurs claim to predict the future by observing crows, he remarks, "It is a great sin to believe that God would entrust his counsels to crows" (XII.vii.44). Isidore's persistent response to pagan religious belief is euhemerism, the interpretation of pagan divinities and mythological figures as in fact human beings wrongly elevated as supernatural creatures by benighted heathen. In his chapter on the pagan gods (VIII.xi) Isidore begins confidently, "Those who the pagans assert are gods are revealed to have once been men, and after their death they began to be worshipped among their people." In the same chapter (section 29) he rejects the tradition of interpreting the names of the gods as expressing universal physical properties, "physical allegory," such that Cronos would represent time, Neptune water. Treating the names of the days of the week (V.xxx.5—11) Isidore gives both the Christian and the pagan terms. Noting that the latter are named from heathen gods — Saturday from Saturn, etc. — he is careful to remind us that those figures were actually gifted humans, but he acknowledges that these names for days are in common use. "Now, in a Christian mouth, the names for the days of the week sound better when they agree with the Church's observance. If, however, it should happen that current usage should draw someone into uttering with his lips what he deplores in his heart, let him understand that all those figures whose names have been given to the days of the week were themselves human." We sense here both Isidore's theological precision and his episcopal tolerance.

The learned tradition that lies behind Isidore's work would lend him five schemes of organization from which to choose. In roughly chronological order these are: the sequential "scholiastic" order of a particular text, as used by the scholiasts on ancient texts, and commentators on master texts like Vergil (Servius) and the Bible (the Church Fathers); the "encyclopedic" order from Varro through Pliny, arranged in rational order by topic; the educational or propaedeutic order, especially of the Seven Liberal Arts (from trivium to quadrivium), from Varro through Cassiodorus; the haphazard "conversational" order of Aulus Genius and Macrobius; and the alphabetical "dictionary" order of collections of glosses and other extracts, through Placidus. Apart from these broader orders are the internal ordering principles of such monographic treatises as annals and chronologies (obviously, chronological order), medical works (e.g., acute and chronic diseases; head to toe anatomies), and the rational orders of logical and legal texts.

Isidore used all these orders except the scholiastic and the conversational. The general scheme of the twenty books can be approached in several ways. One arrangement, with some support from the manuscript tradition, divides the Etymologies into two decades of ten books. In assessing this arrangement we need to remember Braulio's assertion in the Renotatio that it was he, not Isidore, who divided the text into books, where Isidore had left it only divided into "titles" ( tituli)— perhaps what we call the "chapters" of the received text. The organizing principle of the second decade is obviously encyclopedic, and contains two movements: the first (Books XI—XVI) might be called On the Nature of Things — the Lucretian title, adopted by Isidore himself in an earlier work. This segment ranges (below celestial matters) from higher to lower things — from intelligent animals (humans; Book XI) through other animals (XII), cosmic and non-earthly phenomena (XII), the earth (XIV), and earthy materials (XVI). Within these orders a number of subclassifications are perceptible — for example, the treatment of metals from the most to the least valuable, of gems by color, or the division of the world's objects into those composed of each of the four elements. Out of order here, in this conception, is Book XV, rather a miscellany on cities and things built by humans — this would fit better, perhaps, in the second movement of the second decade. This movement (XVII—XX) broadly treats human institutions, artifacts, and activities. Book XVII begins in this way, at least, with agriculture, though the bulk of the book treats flora in detail — our (ultimately Aristotelian) sense of order would prefer to place this material among the books on animals and minerals. The order of this last group of books is not obvious; their miscellaneous character may explain why they fall at the end of the whole work.

The first decade adopts several principles of order: propaedeutic, encyclopedic, alphabetic. Books I—III obviously conform to the idea of the Seven Liberal Arts, as explained in I.ii. These are followed by the treatments of medicine and law (IV, the first part of V), rounding out a general introductory education, we might say, in the professions. The second part of Book V, on the mensuration of time and the actual chronology of history, annalistically ordered, may be said to look both back, to the essentially pagan character of the liberal disciplines of the first books, and forward, to the religious matter of the following books. This set, Books VI to VIII, focuses on the sacred sciences, not in an obvious sequence. Book VI is propaedeutic to these, treating Scripture, the authority for the rest, then books in general, then a number of ecclesiastical matters. Books VII and VIII present a transparent order, moving from God downward to heresy and paganism. Book IX treats human institutions broadly conceived, human organization (languages, nations, reigns, cities, kinship), and Book X, alphabetically ordered, presents terms descriptive of humans. These two books might after all be classed with the following book (XI), the anatomy of human beings.

A more general characterization of the Etymologies' scheme of organization would make the main division after Book V. Thus the first part constitutes notes toward a general education, and the second a particularization of reality based mainly on two principles, that of the Great Chain of Being (from God to inanimate materials) and that of the four elements. In this scheme, too, the last group ofbooks constitutes an anomalous miscellany. Neither order consistently dominates the text, and the exigencies of Isidore's broadest intention, to store in compendious form what is known from former times, ultimately takes precedence over the inherited schemes.

As Fontaine has pointed out (1966:536-38), Isidore's followers derived material wholesale from the Etymologies, but under more fully Christianized, "clericalized" form, in "a sort of Carolingian edition." Especially remarkable in this connection is the reordering of the work by Hrabanus Maurus in his On the Nature of Things, which begins not with the Liberal Arts (which Hrabanus treated in another book) but with the religious material, and works "down" through the Chain of Being.57 Furthermore, Hrabanus lards the whole with allegorical interpretations of the kind found in Isidore's own Certain Allegories of Sacred Scripture. Not until the thirteenth century, and not entirely until the sixteenth century, does the impulse toward encyclopedism recover the intellectual inclusiveness of Isidore.

Given this rough outline of the Etymologies, we can turn to its particular content, and begin by noticing a few things the Etymologies is not. First of all, it is not complete or polished — so Braulio implies and so Isidore says in the letters prefaced to the work in the manuscripts (Letters II and V). We may imagine that the finished work would have eliminated many of the repetitions currently present, and might have joined together the now scattered materials on law (Books II and V), on astronomy (Books III and XIII), on nations (Books IX, XIV, and XV), and the like. However, Isidore might well have retained those repeated statements that fall naturally into separate topics. Surely he would have completed or omitted the dozens of items that now stand as the lemma — a single word — alone, without further discussion. These are signaled in this translation by the appearance of ellipsis points, as XI.i.93 or XIX.v.4.

Second, Isidore makes no effort to disclose the rationale of the taxonomies he presents. Here the (derived) shapeliness of the early books on the liberal disciplines is the exception; on the whole Isidore does not explain the order of things beyond what is implicit in their sequence in the text. In this he is like his sources, from Varro on, and differs from the masters of these sciences, Plato and Aristotle. As a consequence we have no reason to think most of the classes of things treated are presented with all their members — a consideration repeatedly made explicit by Isidore himself (e.g. XII.vii.2). So it is, after all, with post-Linnaean biology as well. It should be added here that Isidore does include a good number of lesser schemata, establishing such logical sets of things as the types of definition, or the types of divination, or the kinds of fields.

And third, Isidore generally avoids, in the Etymologies, providing "spiritual" or "mystical," or "figurative," that is, allegorical, interpretations of the items he adduces. These were the main content of his earlier work (perhaps 612-615), the Certain Allegories of Sacred Scripture.' In fact we find a few of such interpretations: "the Hebrews used a ten-stringed psaltery on account of the number of laws of the Decalogue" (III.xxii.7); Esther's people are "a figure of the Church of God," and as Aman's name means "wickedness, so his killing is celebrated in the feast of Purim" (Esther 7 and 9; Etym. VI.ii.29); the seraphim "figuratively signify the Old and New Testaments," they have six wings as a figure of the things made in the six days, and their crying "Holy" three times (Isaiah 6:3) "shows the mystery of the Trinity" (VII.v.32-33); the split tip of a quill pen signifies the Old and New Testaments (VI.xiv.3). At one point Isidore explicitly denies any attempt to provide the spiritual sense: speaking of the names of Biblical characters, he says, "While a holy and spiritual character abides in these names, we are now describing the meaning of their stories only with regard to the literal" (ad litteram; VII.vi.2). Indeed, his direct treatment of divinity in Book VII is essentially a treatment of names, and not a theological investigation. This self-imposed limitation has its precedent in Augustine's The Literal Level of the Book of Genesis (De Genesi ad Litteram), and it is fairly consistently carried out through the Etymologies, hence giving Hrabanus his opportunity for "improvement" of the work for a clerical audience eager for such interpretations.

Isidore's overriding interest, the fundamental principle of the Etymologies, falls under the discipline Isidore would call grammar, the "origin and foundation of liberal letters" (I.v.1), and what we would call philology —the art of understanding and correctly producing words and texts. It is an obvious fact that, before the nineteenth century (the twentieth in the East), philology broadly conceived was the dominant concern of the learned world, the queen of the sciences; Isidore merely reflects that concern at one of the turning-points of intellectual history, as pagan thought in the West gave way to Christian thought. What we might understand as alternative master-disciplines — theology, or experimental science, or philosophy — in Isidore's work are subsumed under philology in what Fontaine calls the "pangrammatical" cast of late antique culture (1966:534).

In fact three sequential chapters (I.xxix—xxxi) in his treatment of the art of Grammar treat three of the main informing principles of the Etymologies: these are etymology, glosses, and differentiae. If we add to these the theme of the next three chapters (xxxii—xxxiv), faulty Latin usage, and the idea that propositions are usefully finished with an illustrative or exemplary quotation, we will have summed up much of the content of the Etymologies.

First, glosses. Isidore defines a gloss as a single term that designates the meaning of another term (I.xxx). If we broaden this to include any sort of definition of a term, we might expect to find hundreds of such definitions in the Etymologies, and indeed there are many: the definition of "gloss" itself, or, selecting at random, of such terms as "chronic disease" (IV.vii.i), "hymn" (VI.xix.17), "tyro" (IX.iii.36), "vineshoot" (XVII.v.9). However, such glosses are relatively infrequent, as compared with Isidore's usual presumption that the basic meaning of the Latin word is either already known to his reader, or (like terms for minerals or herbs) is not in his interest to define in any systematic way — such that, for example, one could positively identify an actual specimen of an item using only his description of it. This is not to say that formal systems of definition were unknown to him: thus in II.xxix he lists fifteen types of definition, with their Greek equivalents, "abbreviated from the book of Marius Victorious"; and in II.xxv and xxvi he briefly but clearly expounds the logical taxonomy of Porphyry's Isagoge and the system of predicates of Aristotle's Categories.

Second, differentiae. This is the kind of definition that does interest Isidore, and they constitute the subject matter of a treatise he wrote before he turned to the Etymologies. In I.xxxi he says a differentia is the distinguishing and therefore defining feature of things otherwise alike, and gives for example the differentiation of the terms for a king (restrained and temperate) and a tyrant (cruel). Isidore introduces dozens of such differentiae in the Etymologies — between a maxim and a chreia (II.xi), between astronomy and astrology (III.xxvii), between three types of law (ius, lex, mores; V.iii), between type*, of wars (XVIII1.2—10) and types of pyres (XX.x.9). As much as any information Isidore gives, such differen tiae reveal Isidore's pedagogical motives: to refine the reader's sense of Latin, sharpen the mind with a fundamental form of reasoning, discourage incorrect usage.

Finally, etymology. On this crucial subject in Isidore we must refer to the essay by Fontaine (1978), with full bibliography, which remains the best treatment — per haps the only essay on a section of the Etymologies namely the chapter on etymology itself (I.xxix), that fully and definitively treats Isidore's thinking and his work with his sources. The sources of this chapter include Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory (I.vi.28), citing Cicero's Topics (35) — where Cicero literally translates the Greek term as veriloquium, "true utterance" — and Boethius's commentary on the Topics. In his chapter on etymology Isidore gives no hint that what he is defining is the most powerful informing principle of the work that both he and Braulio refer to as either Etymologiae or Origines (Letters II, IV, V, VI, Renotatio). He defines etymology as "the origin of words, when the force of a word or a name is inferred through interpretation." He goes on, "The knowledge of a word's etymology often has an indispensable usefulness for interpreting the word, for when you have seen whence a word has originated, you understand its force more quickly. Indeed, one's insight into anything is clearer when its etymology is known.

In the same chapter Isidore offers a brief account (as had Varro and others) of types of etymology, as follows, Some things take their names not from their nature, but arbitrarily. Words with retrievable etymologies take them from their causa (rationale, intrinsic principle, explanatory force), the word's answer to the question "why?" Other words derive from the thing's origin, the word's answer to the question "from where?" Of the former an example is rex ("king") from acting recte ("correctly"); of the latter, homo ("human being") from humus ("earth," the "origin" — Aristotle would say "the material cause" — of the human). Still other etymologies are based on contraries, so that 'mud' ( lutum) derives from 'washing' (lavare, with the past participle lutus). Some words have their etymology by derivation from other words, like the adjective "prudent" from the noun "prudence." Some etymologies may be discovered in words of similar sound. Some words are derived from Greek, and others derive their names from place names. The origins of words derived from other foreign languages are often hard to discern.

This brief statement could be much expanded, but it contains the essence of Isidore's principal endeavor, to disclose the inner and true (hullos) meaning of the Latin lexicon by way of the etymology of the words. The method is fundamentally derivational, whether from a thing's intrinsic character (its causa) to its extrinsic name, or from its originating motive by process of time to its current locution, or from some term's sound to another term's similar sound, or from one word-class or language to another. The constantly repeated formulas are "X is so called because Y" and "X is so named as if the word were Y." The focus on origins, indeed, finds expression in many places in the Etymologies where the origins of things rather than merely words are specified: the origins of various alphabets (I.iii.5) and the Latin letters (Liv.1), of shorthand signs (I.xxii) and of fables (I.xl.1), of historiography (I.xlii) and of the disciplines of Rhetoric (II.ii.1) and physics (II.xxiv.4). Further, Isidore supplies hundreds of indications of the regions where things — metals, spices, gems, birds, and the like —originate, uniquely, or in their best condition, or abundantly, and whence they are imported (imported, that is, as Isidore's sources presume, into Italy). The very idea of a disquisition on the "Nature of Things," the essential title of an encyclopedic work, implied for a Latin reader the idea that the genesis of things is in question, as the word natura itself means (etymologically!) "what is begotten or generated," from natus, the past participle of nasci, "be born."

In a number of places Isidore offers a brief review of types of etymology for classes of things. Thus "meters are named either after their feet or after the topics about which they are written, or after their inventors, or after those who commonly use them, or after the number of syllables." Examples, respectively, are dactylic, elegiac, Sapphic, Asdepiadian, pentameter (I.xxxix.5-15). Ointments are named after their regions, inventors, or material (IV.xii.7-9). Heretics may be named after their founders or their tenets (VIII.v.1); philosophers from their founders (Platonists) or their meeting sites (Stoics — VIII.vi.6). To such as these we can add the great many places where Isidore makes the type of an etymology explicit. Examples are the derivations of the names of seas from the names of people who perished in them (XIII.xvi.8); of the disease satyriasis from its exemplars the satyrs (IV.vii.34); the names of parts of the Mediterranean from the adjacent regions (XIII.xvi.5); the different terms for earth from logic (ratio —XIV .i.1); `pocket change,' the thing contained, from the word for `bag,' the container (XVI.xviii.11; for such metonymies see I.xxxvii.8); derivation by physical resemblance, as the disease elefantiacus takes its name from the sufferer's resemblance to an elephant (IV.viii.12); from onomatopoeia, as the word for 'cricket,' gryllus, is from the sound of its call (XII.iii.8); and similarly the names of many birds (XII.vii.9). The notorious type that Isidore labels with the Greek term ("by opposition") is not infrequent: thus the merciless Parcae take their name from the verb meaning "spare" (parcere — VIII.xi.93).

Usually Isidore grants that the borrowing of a Latin word from Greek amounts to a sufficient etymology, though often he supplies a second explanation from within Latin as well. A great many etymologies based on Greek are not made explicit in the Etymologies, in some cases perhaps from Isidore's own ignorance of the import of the etymology he adduces. We have supplied the relevant Greek in this translation when we are aware of it. In his treatment of illnesses, for example, Isidore provides a number of etymologies from Greek, but when he gives the etymology of the antidote tyriaca he omits the crucial information that Sr) (Naxos means "of venomous beasts" (IV.ix.8) although he knows that the medicine is "made from snakes." He also supplies a number of etymologies from languages other than Latin or Greek — obviously from secondary sources. Most of these, as in the case of Biblical names, are from Hebrew, but we also learn of words derived from Persian (XII.ii.7), Syrian (XII.vi.38), and a number of others.

The most frequent type of etymology, from the very beginning (know' [scire] is named from 'learn' [ discere]) to the end (`branding iron' [cauterium] is so called because as a warning [ cautio] to potential thieves it burns [urere]), is the discovery of a term's origin in another term, a single word or a phrase, because of a resemblance in their sound. Such similarities are often tenuous and remote, as Isidore seems to acknowledge when he observes, in deriving 'spiced' (salsus) from the phrase `sprinkled with salt' (sale aspersus), "with the [three] middle syllables taken away" (XX.ii.23) — it is a stretch. It is hard not to agree with the remark of Isidore's distinguished editor Faustino Arévalo, some two hundred years ago, that Isidore can produce an etymology not in the belief that it is the actual origin of a term, but as a mnemonic aid (Patrologia Latina 82.954). Arévalo's example is Isidore's deriving 'swan' (cygnus) from 'sing (canere) — after he has just referred to the Greek word that is the obvious etymon,kukuos. We might add a large number of instances where Isidore notes that a term is "as if the word were" (quasi) another term Thus Isidore distinguishes the two plural forms of pecus ("livestock"), pecora and pecudes, by proposing that the latter term is used only of animals that are eaten, "as if the word were pecuedes," that is, as if it contained the term 'eat' (edere; XII.i.6). The many dozens of such instances may well reflect Isidore's effort to help a student of Latin to remember a distinction rather than his belief in the actual origin of a word. To be sure, Isidore's authoritative sources, pagan and Christian, were replete with etymologies no more strained than these. Isidore illuminates the essences of words, their natures, not in terms of historical linguistics, but in terms of grammar.

Another translation of this work is available in 2 volumes:

Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Complete English Translation, Volume I Isidore of Seville's Etymologies: Complete English Translation, Volume 2

Book 11 - The Human Being and the Portents

Human origins; the soul; where "animal" comes from; memory; many parts of the body (nose, eyes, limbs, flesh, bones, etc.); the five senses; formation of milk in the breasts; semen; uterus; menstruation period; embryology; 6 stages of human life; on issues for women; aging body issues; issues of the dead; portents - abnormally born creatures; hermaphrodites; mythical creatures

Book 12 - Animals

Names of many animals and some characteristics (large and small mammals, serpents, worms, fish, birds, insects)

Book 13 -The World and Its Parts

Directions; Atoms; Elements; the sky; the poles; the air; clouds; thunder; lightning; hail, rain, snow; how rainbows form; winds and specific wind currents are named; water and the variations of water; the sea; the ocean; tides; straits; lakes; water abyss; rivers and where the names of specific rivers come from; floods from the past

Book 14 - The Earth and Its Parts

The 3 land masses of earth; how these land masses are distributed; landmarks and histories of Asian territories; landmarks and histories of European territories; landmarks of Islands; landmark mountains; caves

Book 15 - Buildings and Fields

Cities and towns; divisions of territory (colonies, villages, etc.); houses; holy places; workshops; parts of buildings (walls, roofs, bricks, columns, etc.); defense design of buildings (trenches, etc.); graves; divisions of fields; on roads

Book 16 - Stones an Metals

Minerals and elements (sulfur, salt, etc.); common stones (calculus, magnets [these are considered stones in the book], marble, etc.); gems; glass types; metals (gold, silver, copper, iron, lead); alloys (stagnum, electrum); methods and approaches to weights and measures; units of measures

Book 17 - Agriculture

Cultivation of fields; grains and their types (barley, wheat, etc.); legumes (peas, beans, etc.); planting of vines; trees and their types (fruit, palm, etc.) and their growth; herbs and their types (poppy, saffron, etc.); vegetables and their types ( mustard, cucumbers, etc.)

Book 18- War and Amusements

4 types of war; differences between war types; Roman customs after triumphs in war; standards or signs that occur in battle; instruments for sounds in war (tuba, trumpets, etc.); armor; sword types; spear types; arrow types; shield types; battering ram; forum and judiciary elements; spectacles (gymnasium, gymnastics, strength , throwing, wrestling); contesting; the Circus games (charioteers, horse races, etc.); people involved in theatre (tragedians, comedians, actors, mimes, dancers); amphitheatre and gladiator battles ( equestrian, contest of beasts, etc.); minor games and gambling (dice, calculi, etc.)

Book 19 - Ships, Buildings, and Clothing

Crew (captain, sailors, etc.); types of boats (rafts, fleet, etc.); pirates; boat equipment; blacksmiths; construction and construction equipment; colors; carpenters; clothing and wool working; silk; cultural dressing habits

Book 20 - Household Appurtenances

Furniture; food; drinks; food and drink vessels; beds; hygiene; farm equipment; horse equipment

This constitutes the second half of Isidore's "Etymologies". Truly this is a remarkable first half of such a valuable work of science and culture from the "Dark Ages". It turns out that the "Dark Ages" were not so dark, but were instead excellent times of scientific and technological progress and reading the primary sources allows for a better look at their perspectives. They were not ignorant! If anything we built directly on the foundations of the ancients. For more information on ancient and medieval sciences please look at the primary sources such as: Greek Science of the Hellenistic Era: A Sourcebook, The Mathematics of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and Islam: A Sourcebook, Aristarchus of Samos: The Ancient Copernicus (Dover Books on Astronomy), A Sourcebook in Medieval Science (Source Books in the History of the Sciences).

The Medieval World of Isidore of Seville: Truth from Words by John Henderson (Cambridge University Press) In his Etymologiae, St Isidore of Seville put together a systematic survey of the world in the form of a vast thesaurus of Latin vocabulary, which supplies a more or less accepted or fanciful etymology for each term. It became one of the most influential books of European culture through the whole medieval period. This Latin 'Roget' is traditionally used as a reference work, accessed through an elaborate index system. In this book Professor Henderson, the most challenging critic writing on Latin literature and Roman culture, presents a full reading of all twenty books of the Etymologiae, showing how the material is sequenced so that its reader is treated to a thoroughgoing education in the world as it was apprehended in Jewish, Graeco-Roman and Christian culture. All Latin, including etymologies, is translated.

Isidore of Seville: De Ecclesiasticis Officiis edited and translated by Thomas L. Knoebel(Ancient Christian Writers: Paulist Press) Isidore describes and traces the origin of the Church offices, both liturgical and ministerial. In its present form, De Ecclesiasticis Officiis consists of two books with a total of seventy chapters. Book One is organized on the basis of the liturgical practice of Isidore's day and describes the Eucharistic liturgy with its components, the Divine Office and major liturgical feasts and church practices. The fact that these chapters are arranged in the order of Spain's seventh century liturgy provides modern day scholars and interested Catholics a fascinating glimpse into a vibrant liturgical prayer form which continues to be celebrated today, some 1500 years later. In Book Two of De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, Isidore studies the offices of those who exercised ministry in the Church of his day, describes other significant groups, and concludes by examining the Rite of Initiation. This Book provides a rare account of Church life and practice of seventh century Spain.


  • This is the first complete English translation of this important work of Isidore, the last Latin Father of the Church

    Isidore is one of the most influential Latin theologians in the West until Trent
  • Isidore was a strong advocate of clerical education, a precursor of the Tridentine seminary system, and a reformer of Church life
  • The book is the fullest description available of 7th-century Spanish liturgy and Church life and practice
  • The book demonstrates the variety of Latin liturgies in the West



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