What’s in a word?

I was listening to a years-old Big Ideas the other day, featuring Sheila Jeffreys, radical feminist, professor, and author, and Robbie Swan, founder of the Eros Association, officer of the political Australian Sex Party, and pornography producer.

Predictably, the debate was quite robust. Robust in an intelligent way, not the “robust” debates of parliament that George Brandis speaks so fondly of – grown adults, who are presumably smart, guffawing and carrying on like pork-chops. This was a good debate, both sides presenting some good arguments – as well as a healthy amount of bullshit – while remaining largely civil with each other. I had only heard about Jeffreys from reputation – which isn’t the best – and have yet to read any of her work, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear she wasn’t the misandrist radical that she has been made out to be. At any rate, I will find out next year when I take Sexual Politics at Melbourne Uni, a unit she has presided over for as long as I’ve been hearing her name.

All of this is a rather long and digressive way of getting to the fact that during the debate, Jeffreys mentioned the (well-worn) fact that the word “pornography” comes from the Greek meaning “writing about prostitutes”. (Except, to be accurate, what she actually said was that it meant “writing about whores”, which I think was her way of surreptitiously making everything seem that little bit more negative.)

I had read this before, but thought little of the fact. Etymology interests me in so far that it maps the incredible evolution that language takes. But I don’t feel like there needs to be any great connection between a word’s origin and its common usage today, nor how that word is understood and interpreted by those who utter it. Continue reading