­Issue #2 – The Devil’s Etymology, Vol. 1

­The Devil’s Etymology: Vol. 1

Don Ciglio


Refuse: from Latin refundere: re- “back” + fundere “to pour, to melt, to liquefy.” Literally, to pour back or to re-melt. Etymologically speaking, to refuse is to start over with something, to undo it from within.

Why would we refuse a word? Words are powerful entities. Enablers. They are doers. And it is we that they do, in fact. And they also let us do things. Words are also circumscribing. They don’t do some things, they don’t do us in quite the ways we would like, and they don’t let us do certain things. “Words are never only words. They matter because they define the contours of what we can do,” says Žižek.

Perhaps the words we have are too circumscribing, too limiting, too dead. If we refuse them, returning them as close as we can to the form they took in their original iridescent crucible, might we be able to reinfuse them with something else, something otherwise, something lost, something new, something unexpected, something previously unthinkable?

In the Devil’s Dictionary (published first in 1906 as “The Cynic’s Word Book”), Ambrose Bierce redefined common English words as they are actually used or experienced (e.g., “ACCURACY, n. A certain uninteresting quality carefully excluded from human statements; ACHIEVEMENT, n. The death of endeavor and birth of disgust”). Since its release, the text has been called “howlingly funny” and “one of the greatest [satires] in all of world literature. 

The practice of writing a Devil’s Etymology — of dredging up the foundations of words in order to reveal and re-fuse their insides — began in curiosity, but quickly became compulsive and then, contagious. Etymological consciousness appears to be dangerous and rebellious because it threatens the very foundations of utterability and thinkability and thus opens up a space towards otherwises still unknown. Like Camelia Elias — Scholar-Artist-Magician— we Read Like the Devil, so that we may speak and write like Them too. We do more than use words. We look at them: observe their function, decide what is important, and look for the thing that kills us. In these pages, this rebellion hopes to become a revolution—to produce a rolling, again, on this rock we ride through the stars, we joyful Sisypheans.

This Season’s Etymologies

Analysis: from the Greek: ana “up, back, throughout” + lysis “loosening.” Literally “a loosening up.” Contrary to the aggressiveness of breaking a rock with a hammer, or the precise cuts made in a dissection, to loosen something one must be gentle, attentive, soft, and slow. The more aggressive you are with a knot, the tighter it gets, making the job increasingly impossible until there is no other intervention but that of Alexander in Górdion. Our Romanized eyes cannot help but also see “anal” in ana, which is fine since they do indeed share Proto-Indo-European roots. Anus in Latin means “ring.” The connection to “up” is that ana refers to either opening of, for example, a pipe. It can also mean bottom. Analysis then is nothing but a kind of laxative, an induced peristalsis to the irritable bowel of Western ontology. Analysis is like Jacques Rancière’s conception of the political (Disagreement, 1995), a disruption of the partition of the sensible against the wrong of constipation. Thus, is subjectivity born, through the strain, the lack, the anal castration in the arena of a toilet bowel. “Why is there nothing there where there should be something?” Only analysis can provide release and relief, freeing the chain of signification.

Attention: from the Latin verb attendere: ad “to, toward” + tendere “to stretch.” In “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” Simone Weil writes that attention is not occurring when her students are “contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles.” This may appear to contradict the etymology, but anyone who has practiced yoga sufficiently long enough understands that success in holding a posture is not effortful, but can only be achieved when one relaxes sufficiently, when one breathes themselves into or opens themselves around a posture. For Weil, attention can only be a “negative effort” in which we are “suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.” Indeed, in Weil’s French the verb attendre today simply means “to wait.” The same holds true for its Italian cousin: attendere “to wait.” When we pay our attention, we are waiting patiently for our object, waiting for it to unfold. Through this act of waiting we discover the great incite of both the Buddha and Hegel—that we must treat the object not only as substance but also as subject. Not an It, but a Thou. A friend in a dialogic encounter. 

Desire: from the Latin desiderare: de “of, from” + sidus “heavenly body, star, constellation.” Our desires feel so internal, so intimately us. They emerge from within, bubbling up from some inner depth, and they drive us forward in life. This ancient morphological construction already contains the secrets revealed to us by the best 20th century critical theory: our desires are not our own. To think desire, then, is to think the realization that one’ desires are not one’s own, that one is but a vehicle, an incubator for some Other. Being structured like a language, it too is from outer space, from the stars: those glistening distant flames that at once precede us and are the singular object of life’s consumption. We are stardust and stardust we consume. All life is ultimately heliotropic — revolving around a star we call The Sun. Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are. I desideri sono già ricordi. Ne pas ceder sur son désir.

Focus: A word used so often in English that it has a kind of generic or abstract quality. It always seems to refer to a kind of visual experience; to fix one’s eyes or to bring an object into “focus,” understood here as a “view.” Indeed, etymologically this makes sense, but with a much more tangible and visceral suggestion. If we look to Italian, we find a common idiomatic expression that is equally as common in English and syntactically identical. In English we say “to put into focus” and in Italian it is literally the same: “mettere a fuoco.” Fuoco here would invariably be translated as focus, but an Italian ear understands the word in a much more primal way: fuoco = fire. In Latin, the focus was the hearth, the place that both warmed the familial space of social reproduction—a condition of existence for its functioning—but also was the space where cooking occurred, where ingredients were mixed, combined, broken down and transformed into nourishment. Because the words for fire and focus are identical in Italian, one begins to understand the close relationship in that culture between knowledge (sapienza) and flavor (sapore). To know is to taste. In order to attain knowledge of something, we must put it into focus, bring it to the focal point—to the hearth—to let it boil, fry, sauté, simmer, and stew. Only when sufficiently cooked can knowledge provide us with the nourishment we need. Focus is the evolutionary advantage that led to the development of homo sapiens: the savoring human.

Humiliation: from the Latin “the process of humus creation.” Humus is the black-brown matter in topsoil that is produced by the putrefaction—rot, decay, and decomposition—of vegetable and animal matter. Rich in nutrients, this soil is extremely valuable to plants. It is a “sink” that retains moisture. Humus forms as the result of a complicated interplay between inorganic conversions and organic creatures like microbes, nematodes, and earthworms. Only 4-12 inches (10-30 cm) of humus-containing soil are available on the Earth’s crust. This thin layer of earth is all that exists to provide the nutrition for animal and plant life. Every growth is accompanied by a loss of humus. Only deciduous forests and undisturbed land produce their own soil, as they convert discarded leaves into humus. Humus is rich in carbon and is generally quite acidic as a result of its humic acid content. It increases the water storage potential of soil and produces carbonic acid, which can disintegrate minerals. Lithobionts—those who live on stone—are the microbes that begin the formation of humus. They produce a life-giving substance from nonliving minerals. On the basis of this process, living matter, earth, plants, animals, and human beings can begin, step by step, to build. Although the terms humus and compost are informally used interchangeably, they are distinct soil components with different origins; humus is created through anaerobic fermentation, while compost is the result of aerobic decomposition. The difference between decomposition with breathing and decomposition without breathing. Humiliation, a precondition of all that occurs in life. Humiliation, the beginning of sanctification. A mark of existence: sabbe sankhara anicca—all formations are impermanent.

Passive: from the Latin passivus “capable of being acted upon; receptive to passio.” Recall that the Latin passio, from which derives our “passion,” is even today an extremely ambivalent term—a term with two (ambi “both”) values (valens “strength”). It is at once suffering, pain, unease, as well as the most intense erotic heat and arousing enthusiasm. The “passion of the Christ” is both the account of Jesus of Nazareth’s physical suffering and the source of his follower’s love for God. The Late Latin passionem means “suffering, enduring,” from the past-participle stem of Latin pati “to endure, undergo, experience.” The notion is “that which must be endured.” Although no link has been made, in Sanskrit (another Indo-European language), pati means master or lord. Passion as the master signifier, the signifier without a signified. A mark of existence: sabbe sankhara dukkha—all formations are unbehagen

Person: from the Latin persona “mask”: per “through” + sonare “to sound.” See Desire. The person as the mask of an Other, a means for something else to speak. You do not get to consent to yourself. You are but a mask for someone or something else. A “person” is just the first point through which the ineffable resounds. By understanding yourself as a person, the “I” acknowledges its own proper position with a magical cosmology (See Campagna, Federico, Technic & Magic, 2018), proclaiming the primacy of ineffable ontology over the ontology of names. A mark of existence: sabbe sankhara anatta—all formations are insubstantial. 

Refuge: from the Latin refugium: re– “back” + fugere “to flee, to chase.” Refuges are both nurturing and protective spaces, coves for hiding, and also vectors of travel. We are refugees, who take refuge in the nurturing and protective space. We are in flight, but we also take flight, chasing a satisfaction that forever eludes us. We flee, so that we may fly. Refuge is indeed negatively defined, but it is also on the scent of a more beautiful world that can only be deciphered in whispers.

Rigor: This word is much beloved by the technicians of pedagogy. Enter the sword of Glenn Wallis: “First comes rigor and then comes rigor mortis.” Rigor as a value is designed to cage, kill, and dissect the object of study. To shake it vigorously until dead. Rigor is what a crocodile does with its prey before extracting nourishment. Today’s scholars are like crocodiles, snapping their prey into the submission of death. Rigor implies a colonizing transparency, a demystifcation and depotentialization of a magical object. In Latin, rigor does indeed mean stiff, but it derives from the PIE root, *rieg—, which is more like stretch or to be stretched. Recall that yogic practice requires a stillness that from the outside may appear rigid and stiff, but it is a dynamic process of alignment. Our rigor is an opening of ourselves and an opening towards the other of our study. What we study is not substantial object, it is subjective other. We do not intend to kill it, but to stretch ourselves and align ourselves in spirit, in breath.

Don Ciglio emerged as a split subject on the foothills of Mt. Vesuvius and somewhere off Exit 3 of the NJTP. He reassembled as a singularity sometime in 2013. He is a disciple of Dionysus’s reincarnation Pulcinella, an apprentice of magical and dialectical materialism, a pizzicariello, and a worshiper of cats. He writes at the margins and intersections of queer theory, Black Radical Thought, and meridionalismo.