Off-scene Etymology Pushed Off-stage

Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor

In my reading I stumbled across an item of interest to lexicographers…

Sontag notes

Cancer patients are lied to, not just because the disease is (or is thought to be) a death sentence, but because it is felt to be obscene — in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.

I was wondering why Sontag didn’t push this to the off-scene meaning — a death in the wings. I took out the magnifying glass and checked the Compact Edition of the OED (I don’t yet have a subscription to the online OED). Not finding that particular etymology I took my scouting online. Various discussions online quote the OED Third Edition to the effect that the off-scene is a folk etymology derived by a suggestion by Varro.

Michael Newcity in The Invention of Obscenity provides a handy compendium of various other etymologies …

There are many theories concerning the origins of the Latin word obscēnus. They include theories that obscēnus is based on:

• a combination of ob- (meaning “on account of”) + cēnum/caenum/coenum, which means filth, dirt, uncleanness;

• canendo, meaning singing, making sound, utterance, thus making an impure or vile utterance or sound obscēnus; and

• the word obscurus, meaning “concealed.”

Ah what a rabbit hole… I am intrigued at what point Varro may have been chased off the stage and his proposed etymology relegated to folk status.

And so for day 2723

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