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  • At the Confluence of Etymology and Thinking: A Response to Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Peter Fenves (bio)

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”). The etymologist therefore goes in search of a source for the name Ruhr that remains unencumbered by an ugly association with the identical common noun.

The name of the etymologist is Theodor Lohmeyer, whose passion for tracing the source of geographical terms is comparable to that of the Curé, an “excellent man,” who, as recounted in the first volume of À la Recherche du temps perdu, descends upon Marcel’s aunt at particularly inauspicious moments. About the origin of the Rhine, Lohmeyer is both brief and unequivocal: it emerges from the Germanic root-term rana, cognate with both the English run and the Greek rhein (Lohmeyer 1904, 5). Apropos the name “Ruhr,” by contrast, he is highly circumspect: it doubtless could derive from similar-meaning words in Middle German, rôren or rûren, themselves derivatives of the Old High German verb hruoran or ruoran and thus related to the modern High German rühren and [End Page 20] berühren; but as Lohmeyer proceeds to explain, “a thoroughly infelicitous tautology would have to be assumed in such an ancient river name” (Lohmeyer 1881, 38). The tautology is equivalent to the one that gives rise to the name “Rhine,” but in the contrasting case of the Ruhr, for unstated reasons, it yields an unhappy result. Lohmeyer then proposes a source for “Ruhr” that has nothing to do with rôren or rûren: “Therefore I connect Rur-â with Germanic rausa, Old High German rôr, New High German Rohr [tube], and I explain it as ‘river reeds.” Turning away from the uncertain flow of language, which can be recovered only by reading, Lohmeyer recalls an experience of his own—the experience, namely, of seeing reeds at the source of the Ruhr: “This etymology works very well in the case of the Ruhr, which, as the author himself has witnessed, flows through meadows overgrown with reeds at its source” (ibid., 39). If, as Lohmeyer implies, reeds are still visible in parts of the Ruhr (he was writing at the end of the nineteenth century, when the region was undergoing heavy industrialization) the river in ancient times must have been positively overflowing with such flow-obstructing rods.

To the extent that the evidence for Lohmeyer’s supposition that the name Ruhr derives from a common noun meaning “reed” consists in lived experience rather than an experience of reading, his etymological investigation transcends the sphere of historical philology. Taken by itself, without contravening linguistic evidence, the name Ruhr suggests the identical noun. As it happens, this word is indissociable from the image of unimpeded flow, for, as Lohmeyer doubtless knows (this is the reason he emphasizes that Ruhr...


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