At the Confluence of Etymology and Thinking: A Response to Jean-Luc Nancy


While searching for the original meanings of the river names of Germany, the etymologist soon discovers that in many cases the names derive from words meaning “river.” So prevalent is this semantic phenomenon that it can be found even in the case of confluent rivers. Thus, the name Rhein, Anglicized as “Rhine,” derives from the same complex of words that gives rise to such modern German verbs as rennen (“to run,” as in the running of a race) and rinnen (“to run,” as in the running of water), both of which are cognates of rhein, the Greek verb that can be found in the famous Heraclitean or pseudo-Heraclitean apothegm, panta rhei, ouden gar menei (“everything flows, nothing remains”). Apropos the name “Ruhr,” which flows into the Rhine, however, the etymologist hesitates. There is a common noun in modern High German, antiquated though it may be, which corresponds to the name of the river and is, in addition, closely related to archaic words that are probably not themselves cognates of rennen and rhein but nevertheless mean something very similar. And yet, in the eyes of the etymologist, there is something perverse about the proposal that the proper name “Ruhr” be associated with the corresponding common noun, as though in this instance, unlike so many others, the name of a river cannot be referred back to a word referring to a flux and thus to the appearance of a Fluss (“river”).

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