by @SuckItEvolution with @TkThtEtymology
There’s a pernicious and annoying little theist meme that’s been spread all over Twitter and other social media channels for several years now. Every so often, you’ll see it getting re-cycled and re-tweeted by new enthusiasts encountering it for the first time. I like to call it “The UNI-VERSE Meme”. It has a number of popular variations, but basically goes something like this (caution: you might want to have a good, stiff drink, before reading further):
“UNI” = One, or single;
“VERSE” = Spoken (or occasionally written) word, phrase,\\ or sentence;
“UNI-VERSE” = A single, spoken word or sentence;
→ Our universe is a “UNI-VERSE” — Created by a single spoken WORD or SENTENCE, uttered by God!
UNI-VERSE meme fans are not quite decided on whether “UNI-VERSE” means a single word, sentence, or phrase (hence, my canonical rendering above). But no matter — they press on undeterred! Often, they’ll embellish the meme with their own creative nuances. Some even seem to suggest that our physical universe IS that single word or phrase, suspended in the aether like some grand Platonic archetype. Here are just a few examples I’ve harvested from Twitter (note: I’ve posted these as simple screen captures, because the embedded tweets were simply taking too long to load):
Yes, wake up:
Oh, I’ve definitely thought about it:
Adam gets it, of course. Too bad nobody else does:
Sometimes, they don’t really bother to elaborate on what their point is. The meme has become so embedded that they simply repeat it without even giving the punchline. Like The Monkey Question, it is a shibboleth of creationist nonsense.
Now, what I find so exasperating about this meme (and I’m sure many of you do, as well) is that it is not based on the actual meaning, or origin, of the term universe, as used by most English speaking people today. Not in the least. Consider, for example, the English Wikipedia page for Universe, which traces this word’s etymology as follows:
The word universe derives from the Old French word univers, which in turn derives from the Latin word universum. The Latin word was used by Cicero and later Latin authors in many of the same senses as the modern English word is used. The Latin word derives from the poetic contraction unvorsum — first used by Lucretius in Book IV (line 262) of his De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) — which connects un, uni (the combining form of unus, or “one”) with vorsum, versum (a noun made from the perfect passive participle of vertere, meaning “something rotated, rolled, changed”).
When Googling “Universe etymology”, the first result returned to me by Google was a graphical representation of the same (more or less) above definition from Wikipedia. Following that were a number of other sources of definitions, including a link to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which defines universe as:
universe (n.) 1580s, “the whole world, cosmos, the totality of existing things,” from Old French univers (12c.), from Latin universum “all things, everybody, all people, the whole world,” noun use of neuter of adjective universus “all together, all in one, whole, entire, relating to all,” literally “turned into one,” from unus “one” (see one) +versus, past participle of vertere “to turn” (see versus).
And finally, I’d found, fairly high up there in the search results, this exquisite little gem, posted as a query to Yahoo Answers (italics added by me, to emphasize the truly sticky parts):
Atheists and the word universe?
Respectfully, do atheists have a problem with the meaning of the word “universe”? The word universe is taken from two root words….UNI meaning single… as in unicycle or unicellular and VERSE meaning sentence or spoken word. So the word UNIVERSE literally means a “single spoken word” which has connotations of God’s creative power in the Genesis acount of how God created everything by speaking it into existence. How is it that the word universe has come to mean everything in existence? or that universities are considered areas of knowledge? I’d just like to know your thoughts on this with all due respect.
Following that query were a number of replies to the contrary, most of which respectfully pointed out the error of the poster’s interpretation of the word “universe”, and generously offered more appropriate explanations, along the lines of what I’ve cited above, and with some providing links to credible sources. But this thread was finally capped-off by one last reply, from yet another meme enthusiast whom I guess just wasn’t satisfied with the more thoughtful responses, and felt it appropriate to come to the rescue by reiterating the basic canon:
Universe=One spoken phrase
As in “Let there be”
So, … why does this silly Twitter meme stick so badly in my craw that I simply can’t ignore it? I suppose there are many reasons; here are the three main ones:
1) The meme is completely incorrect and intellectually dishonest. While it’s uncertain if he was the ultimate originator, Kent Hovind was responsible for the initial popularity of this meme, and as usual you can bet that, immediately after its conception, its progenitor didn’t think even once about looking up the true etymology of “universe”, which, as I’d demonstrated above, is but a few clicks away. Either that, or he dismissed the actual accounts as academic-liberal rubbish. There is, of course, a third possibility — that of a charlatan or troll deliberately releasing the UNI-VERSE meme on the gullible, assured it’d eventually spread like the insidious virus it is, and certainly succeeding in the end. But in any event, new adopters of the meme certainly don’t bother checking whether what’s being claimed is real, or not. I doubt they care.
2) Spreading the meme doesn’t make it so. This seems like a real problem with the present-day crop of theists and conservative wing-nuts: No matter how many times they tweet and re-tweet this lame-ass claim of the meaning of the word “universe”, they’re not going to somehow make it true. And they’re certainly not going to make true the vague and sloppily conceived idea it represents. It’s just like claiming “God is real because, after all, we always spell ‘God’ with a capital ‘G’, don’t we?” But these folks invariably get totally caught up in all this silly word play, while deliberately ignoring the factual and substantive.
3) Which “Single Word” or “Single Phrase” are you talking about, anyway? The Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible describes God as uttering many incantations, which, over the course of six days, collectively brought earth and heaven into full being. Many “single phrases” were spoken, not just one. Furthermore, there’s no account of God actually creating anything like the universe, as we know it today. God essentially formed heaven and earth by forcing asunder the surrounding “waters of chaos”, and inserting a firmament to keep separate the “waters above” from the “waters below”. But God isn’t claimed to have created the waters prior to dividing them. Nor the land that appeared once the waters were separated. Were the “waters of chaos” believed to be eternal by ancient people? Possibly. But unfortunately, the UNI-VERSE meme fans seem so absorbed in their shared delirium, they’ve even lost sight of the literal account of their own creation myth.
4)As with a lot of language-related mysticism I see, in addition to being a completely incorrect meme, the projection that the etymology of the word somehow reveals a secret about what the denoted object or idea truly means is a bizarre non-sequitur. As noted above, very literally, the primitive roots of “universe” would best be translated “turned into one”. It is still equally bizarre to make a claim that this proves that there were once many things that were separated which have now become one. The argument by etymology, with or without a correct etymology, is a case of the Genetic Fallacy.
5)Even if the etymology were correct, the meme would require that the mystical power imbued into the word which reveals the true nature of reality exist only in the languages which share the root for this particular concept with English. The literal etymology (or in some cases, the literal meaning) of the word for “universe” in other languages include such things as “order”, “all worlds”, “world in general”, and “wholly everything”. As I often like to joke, if we imbue the same mystical properties into the Dutch word for universe, “Heelal”, literally “wholly everything”, then we have proven that physical existence is all there is, and thus the word proves that no transcendent god exists, since physical existence is wholly everything.