Escaping the catachresis

In one of the most influential texts of late antiquity, St Augustine points out that there are words whose roots are related to characteristics which are no longer valid for the usage the words are subjected to. In his De Doctrina Christiana written towards the end of the 4th century AD, he gives the example of piscina, the fish-pond, a place in “which there is no fish, which was not made for fish”, but “which gets its name from fish”, piscis. In all Romance languages, piscina also means swimming pool, also a place not made for fish or containing fish.

For Augustine, this phenomenon and the word it produces is called catachresis, though for the ancient Greeks who coined the term, it was a figure of abuse and incorrect word use, of crossing definite boundaries between words and things. That a word exists first as a denoter of what its root and origin directly relate to, like the piscina as a pond of and for fish, can transition to something almost completely unrelated to its root (there are absolutely no fish in the swimming pool), is a phenomenon of language and cultural change. It is also the driving engine of metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche, figures of speech where one word is used in relation to another.

Augustine’s catachresis goes, however, farther than metaphor and metonymy. It underlines a regrettable truth about language and its users, the fact that the distance between roots and usage becomes ever greater and that words are constantly at risk of self-alienation as time goes by. What Romance language user, Italian, French, Portuguese or otherwise, thinks of fish when she plans to go to the pool?

As our languages evolve, so does our awareness of where the words come from diminish. We use words interchangeably not because they are interchangeable, but on account of our growing ignorance of their history or primary meaning. We need more metaphor in our lives, but less catachresis, at least in Augustine’s sense of the word.

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