Ass and Name
Zola and Zoilus
A few Neos
What's in a Nem?
Pleo III-Two More Pleons
Achron.. and Acroam..
Per IV--Perpotation et al.
Per and Pre--Prevenient
Perpense and Perpend
Epi I--Epiplexis, et al.
The Doric Column
Epi III--Episemon et al.
What's in a Name (er....Ass)?
Onolatry, Onomancy, Onomatologist
Several years ago I went to a lecture by a noted onomatologist. He studies names (Greek word for name is "onoma"; plural is "onomata"). His particular interest was in the naming practices used by American parents. Each year he would pore through data from hospitals across the country regarding which names were most popular for babies. He discovered that there was much more creativity and variety in girl names than in boy names. You could spell "Erin," for example, in three or four ways while the male equivalent, "Aaron," is almost exclusively spelled that way. In addition, there were more guys who had "standard" names, like "Tom" or Mike" or "Eric," than girls. Parental creativity seemed to know no bounds when naming girls. Rather than this being a sign of the unique creativity of girls, however, he said that onomatologists have a different (and perhaps sexist) explanation. Parents subconsciously give girls unique names because that will be the only way, in fact, that they are unique whereas the boys have to "earn" their unique name by "making their mark" in the world.
Be that as it may, my day with the onomatologist (be sure not to confuse it with an enematologist--actually, I just made up that word. By the way, a big word for a "made-up" word is a factitious word, derived from the Latin "facere," to make) got me to thinking about other words combined with "onoma." That is when I got into trouble. Here it my trouble.
Starting with Asses
The Greek word for "ass" is "onos." In antiquity, one could worship various animals, such as cats or dogs or snakes and, sure enough, one even could worship donkeys. Or, better said, when ancient people accused Christians and Jews of illicit religious practices, they sometimes accused them of worshipping asses. I suppose the rationale was something like this. 'We may worship dogs or cats, but at least we are not ass-worshippers.' Oooh. What a devastating attack. The Jews were therefore accused of onolatry. "Latry," which I will probably eventually write about, is derived from the Greek meaning "worship," ("latreia") and is taken over into English in the relatively frequently-appearing word "idolatry (worship of images or idols)." I suppose that one of the accusations, though there is no record of this fact, is that the Jews also practiced onology, which means "foolish talking" or "talking like an ass." I don't know if that means that they brayed like asses or, as we might say, they just made asses of themselves. Ok, moving on.
There really is no reason why asses (onos) and names (onoma) should have met, but they did have a one night stand that led to the birth of onomancy. But no one was sure whose child it was. Was it an ass or a name? Well, first the mancy part. This means "divination," such as we have it in the word "necromancy," meaning divination by means of communicating with the dead. But what should onomancy mean? Well, it looks like onomancy is divination by invoking or somehow using a sacred donkey. You could do it for a cat; why not for an ass? So, we have it.
Only thing is, that is not what onomancy means. According to the OED, onomancy first appeared in the 17th century as "onomancie" and was defined as "divination by names." But, within a few years even the scholars got confused because in 1678 someone listed onomancy as "a Divination by names, or rather a Divination by some observations about an ass." Isn't that cute? How is it an EITHER or an OR? The dictionary maker in 1678 was obviously perplexed and figured he would throw in both definitions, perhaps hoping that no one would ever notice. Indeed, only an ass or word nerd might.
But this simple observation set off a reaction. By the 18th century, the word onomancy had been changed to onomomancy to mean divination by names, and possibly to get it out of the same bed with onomancy. Did you note the extra "mo?" Yep, one mo' mo. But then that confused the scholars, too, because when you add a suffix to a root ending in "a" (which onoma does), do you replace the "a" with an "o," which is obviously what happened here, or does the "a" from "onoma" persist, thus possibly forming onomamancy? So, people wrote both onomomancy and onomamancy to refer to divination by names.
But this was unsettling to linguistic purists, who had to get it right, and so they decided to pick up on the gentive singular of onoma to form the word. After all, one had onomatologist. Why not then have onomatomancy (yikes, or is it onomatamancy?). In the end (is there ever an end in dealing with words?), no one is sure, but onomancy is defined by the OED today as "divination from names..." I think that is a bit of a cop out, don't you?
What I really want to know, however, is whether anyone is practicing the stuff. I mean, we can talk about words all day, but if no one is divining by names or asses, what is the point? I'll be the first one to visit the "Church of Onomantic Science," if anyone ever sets one up, and I will report on whether it is the braying of asses or the invocation of names that I hear.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long