Thursday, August 16, 2007



P.G. Wilson, German Grammar (1950; rpt. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1980), p. 5:
"Circumstance" is Latin for "around-standing"; Umstand says it in German. "Accident" means a "to-falling" in Latin; Zufall translates it into German. "Dialogue" is Greek for "two-speech"; Zwiegespräch keeps to German.
The dia in dialogue does not mean "two". Greek διά (dia) means "through", and Greek δύο (duo) means "two". In Greek, δίς (dis = twice, doubly) is more common in compounds than δύο, and so in ancient Greek we see διλογία (dilogia = "twice-speech", i.e. repetition) but not δυολογία (duologia = "two-speech"). A dialogue can have more than two interlocutors.

On the other hand, the zwie in Zwiegespräch apparently is related to zwei (two), and dictionaries define Zwiegespräch as a "Gespräch zwischen zwei Personen" (conversation between two persons).

My seventh grade English teacher told us that the dia in dialogue meant "two". Even then I knew this was a mistake, and I told her so. She gave me the standard "Matilda" response: "I'm smart, you're dumb; I'm big, you're little; I'm right, you're wrong." That was the moment when my faith in teachers and grownups as repositories of knowledge and wisdom began to fade.

According to Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, even some experts have made this same mistake:
Kilpatrick 1984 says, "At some point in recent semantic history, a curious notion took root that dialogue should be restricted to describe a conversation between two persons only." This is apparently a delicate allusion to, among others, Edwin Newman, whose discussion of Gerald Ford's use of dialogue (in Esquire, December 1975) is based on that notion, and Shaw 1975, 1987, where dialogue is said to be from the Greek for "two words." Not only is Shaw in thrall to the etymological fallacy, but the Greek etymon does not contain the notion "two" at all. Anyone who reads the etymology of the word in a good dictionary will see that Greek dia means "through, across, apart" and several other things, but never "two."
On a related note, I hate the use of dialogue as a verb, as in "I dialogued with my seventh grade English teacher about the etymology of the word dialogue." Yes, I know that Shakespeare said "Dost dialogue with thy shadow?" (Timon of Athens 2.2.67). Shakespeare also said "All debts are cleared between you and I" (Merchant of Venice 3.2.326-327). Both expressions -- "to dialogue with" and "between you and I" -- grate on my ear.

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