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IN the fourteenth book of his Divine Antiquities 1 Marcus Varro shows that Lucius Aelius, the most learned Roman of his time, went astray and followed a false etymological principle in separating an old Greek word which had been taken over into the Roman language into two Latin words, just as if it were of Latin origin. I quote Varro's own words on the subject: “In this regard our countryman Lucius Aelius, the most gifted man of letters within my memory, was sometimes misled. For he gave false derivations of several early Greek words, under the impression that they were native to our tongue. We do not use the word lepus ('hare') because the animal is levipes ('light-footed'), as he asserts, but because it is an old Greek word. Many of the early words of that people are unfamiliar, because to-day the Greeks use other words in their place; and it may not be generally known that among these are Graecus, for which they now use ῞ελλην, puteus ('well') which [p. 89] they call φρέαρ, and lepus, which they call λαγωός. But as to this, far from disparaging Aelius' ability, I commend his diligence; for it is good fortune that brings success, endeavour that deserves praise.” Tis is what Varro wrote in the first part of his book, with great skill in the explanation of words, with wide knowledge of the usage of both languages, and marked kindliness towards Aelius himself. But in the latter part of the same book he says that fur is so called because the early Romans used furvus for ater (“black” ), and thieves steal most easily in the night, which is black. Is it not clear that Varro made the same mistake about fur that Aelius did about lepus. For what the Greeks now call κλέπτης, or “thief,” in the earlier Greek language was called φώρ. Hence, owing to the similarity in sound, he who in Greek is φώρ, in Latin is fur. But whether that fact escaped Varro's memory at the time, or on the other hand he thought that fur was more appropriately and consistently named from furvus, that is, “black,” as to that question it is not for me to pass judgment on a man of such surpassing learning.
1 Fr. 99, Agahd. In the lemma, or chapter heading, Varro's statement is wrongly referred to the Antiquities of Man, the other division of his great work Antiquitatum Libri XLI, treating the political and religious institutions of the Romans. Only scanty fragments have survived.
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