The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

That's Absurd!

The word "absurd" is formed from the prefix "ab-" + root "surd". "ab" here is just an intisifier and surd is short for surdus which was used to translate the Greek alogos. You know that logos means "word" and that the prefix "a-" is a negation. Euclid (Book X, defs. 3 and 4) used alogos which we can translate as "irrational" and--by an extension too complex to explain--to numbers which do not "divide evenly" i.e. cannot be expressed as a fraction, but rather have an unending decimal expansion like pi (3.1415926535...).

This numerical sense of "irrational" gives rise to an intellectual sense of "irrational" in a surprising sort of way. The thing that is a-logos about numbers like pi is that you can never speak their expansion in words, for they are infinite. So sounds can be "surd" as in the 1773 Dictionary of English Grammar can use such a phrase as "All our modes of articulation, whether surd or vocal." So when someone says something that is absurd the idea, I gather, is that either they have really not said anything at all, or there is nothing that can be said in response, one is merely speechless.

I expect it's the former given the etymology of "stupid" to be "stupified"--unable to speak--or in a state of "stupor"--or shock. Actually, not that I think about it a bit more I like the other interpretation to say something absurd is to say something shocking, to leave me speechless. After all, in the original usage it was I the listener who was stupid when you said something bizarre. Only later did the appellation get transfered to you the speaker.

There is some evidence that a separate line went from absurdity to irrationality. If you take the 1617 statement that "A harpe maketh not an absurd sound." to mean a *discordant* sound then you'll take the following line from Hamlet...

"Fye, 'tis a fault to Heauen, A fault against the Dead, a fault to Nature, To reason most absurd."

...to mean reasoning out of accordance with Reason. However, this need not be the case. It could well be that the harp maketh not a *muted* sound (compare the 1842 definition of linguistic tenues "otherwise surds, or whisper-letters" or the earlier nice turn of verse by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather) "Weighs with nice ear the vowel, liquid, surd, And breaks in syllables the volant word."). Then we use our first treatment of surdus as the translation of alogos--which we know for sure--and then the line from Hamlet means to reason inexplicably. I'm no Shakespeare scholar, but I find him to be more Aristotelian than Platonistic and that would somewhat favor my interpretation.

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