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ETYMOLOGY AND MAGIC: YĀSKA'S NIRUKTA, PLATO'S CRATYLUS, AND THE RIDDLE OF SEMANTIC ETYMOLOGIES

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Semantic etymologies are to be distinguished from historical etymologies. A historical etymology presents the origin or early history of a word. Semantic etymologies do something completely different. They connect one word with one or more others which are believed to elucidate its meaning. Semantic etymologies are practically universal in pre-modern cultures, and there are treatises in some cultures - such as Yāska's Nirukta in ancient India, Plato's Cratylus in ancient Greece - that specifically deal with them. This article addresses the question how modern scholarship should try to understand semantic etymologizing. It is argued that, being a universal phenomenon, semantic etymologizing is in need of a universal explanation. Drawing inspiration from certain pre-modern philosophies, it is proposed to study this phenomenon in the light of another category of phenomena that is often called "magical".

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