Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Etymological Reflection

The search of etymological sources can be an important aspect of phenomenological “data collecting.”


The first thing that often strikes us about any phenomenon is that the words we use to refer to the phenomenon have lost some of their original meaning. Words that once could reverberate with lived meaning and reveal a living world now have become lame, limp, mute, emptied, and forgetful of their past power. What can still be conveyed by words such as “earth” or “water,” “happiness” or “hope,” asks Gusdorf (1965)? How flat words have become! Note, for example, how nowadays the word “caring” is being overused by social work, medical, legal, educational, and counseling professionals. And this occurs at a time when we no longer seem to know what it means to care. We speak of medicare, day-care, legal care, health care, after-school care, and so on. We hope to meet caring doctors and caring teachers for our children. But do we still know how to connect these social service professionals with the original meanings of “care” as worry? Of course, retrieving or recalling the meaning of caring is not a matter of simple etymological analysis or explication of the usage of the word. Rather, it is the reconstruction of a way of life: a willingness to live the language of our lives more deeply, to become more truly who we are when we refer to ourselves, for example, as teachers or parents. Being attentive to the etymological origins of words may sometimes put us in touch with an original form of life where the terms still had living ties to the lived experiences from which they originally sprang.