False(?) Etymologies

I love a word with a good story, especially one with a plot twist. One such word is Neanderthal. Many years ago, my father told me of a dainty German scholar named Joachim Neumann, a theologian and hymnist with special interest in the ancient Greeks. Joachim considered “Neumann” a coarse and ugly name, ill-befitting a man of his refinement, so he changed it to the Greek for “new man”: Nea Ander, or Neander. With his new surname, Joachim became a beloved figure in his little German town, and eventually the entire valley (or dale, or thal/tal in German) was named in his honor: Neander Thal. Later, of course, early human remains were found in that same valley. So today, when we think of Neanderthals, we think not of refined scholars or classical Greek ideals but of hairy stooped brutes. The first time I tried to verify the story, I couldn’t find anything, and I worried that this lovely etymology would turn out to be false. A quick internet search today, though, suggests that my father didn’t make this up—or if he did, he’s not the only one spinning this yarn.

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes makes another intriguing word claim: that deliberation is the opposite of liberation. The sum of our desires, aversions, hopes, and fears is called deliberation, Hobbes says, “[a]nd it is called Deliberation, because it is a putting an end to the Liberty we had of doing, or omitting, according to our own Appetite, or Aversion” (Leviathan, ch. 6). Hobbes sometimes wrote in Latin, so I thought he’d know his Latin etymologies. Deliberation as an end to liberty—that would be a great word story. The implications for proponents of deliberative democracy! I eagerly consulted the Oxford English Dictionary for more details…


…and discovered that Hobbes apparently made the whole thing up. According to the OED, deliberate comes not from libertas or liber (the Latin roots of liberty), but from libra—the balance, or scales. To deliberate is not to end liberty, but to balance or weigh. How sensible. How plausible and predictable. How disappointing.

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2 Responses

  1. dave says:

    What a great post! Thanks for sharing the story, I hope it’s true too.

  2. Cicero says:

    The verb in Latin is “librare,” meaning to balance or swing.

    There is also a less common verb “delibro” – principle parts are delibro, delibrare, delibravi, delibratus – meaning “to peel, to remove or strip the bark from.” Our verb could come from that. Wouldn’t be the first time the OED was wrong.