My conversations with cultural anthropologists working in the Amazon Basin suggest that many of them view word etymologies as a way to get at deep or hidden cultural meanings associated with the referents of those words. There is something to this idea, but between the etymological fallacy and false etymologies, one can very quickly skate out out onto thin ice in using etymologies in this way.
I recently came across a mention of the Matsigenka word matsikanari, roughly ‘witch’ or ‘dark shaman’, in Allen Johnson’s Matsigenka ethnography (free expanded internet version here) that illustrates some of the difficulties that enthusiastic amateurs face when they attempt to draw on linguistics in ethnographic description and argumentation. Johnson analyses the word by segmenting it as follows: matsi + kanari, and provides the etymology ‘Man-Guan?’.
“Huh?” you may say. First some background: kanari is the Matsigenka name for the Blue-throated Piping-guan (Aburria cumanensis) a prized game bird among Matsigenkas. You can probably guess how Johnson arrived at the guess that matsi stood, in some way, for ‘man’ (‘human’ ?). The resulting image of the man-guan dark shaman is brilliant in its hallucinatory weirdness, but the etymology leading to it is, alas, false. Too be fair, Johnson’s question mark suggests some alarm bells must have gone off for him too.
There are two big clues that something is amiss with the given etymology. First, there exists a verb root, matsik `bewitch, hex’, which plays havoc with the proposed segmentation (matsik vs. matsi + kanari). Second, Matsigenka has very few noun-noun compounds, and those that do exist have a possessor-possessum structure (e.g. atava + panko ‘chicken’ + ‘house’ = ‘chicken coop’), where the head of the compound is the possessum. The fact that matsikanari does does not have this structure makes Johnson’s compound analysis unlikely. (Matsigenka does have numerous noun-classifier forms, which you can call compounds if you feel like it, but they are not noun-noun compounds.) Another big problem for the compound analysis is that matsi does not mean ‘man’, although matsigenka does mean ‘person’. Matsi is a word in Matsigenka, but it is a clausal negator (note the connection to the Proto-Arawak negator *ma).
The key to the correct etymology of matsikanari lies in recognizing the verb root matsik `bewitch, hex’, and in recognizing that the final syllable is the nominalizer -ri, making the matsikanari some kind of `bewitcher’ or `hexer’. The correct segmentation is probably: matsik (a) -na -ri, where -na is a morpheme that indicates malefactive repetition of the action indicated by the verb stem, and (a) is an epenthetic segment. We thus get `one who repeatedly and detrimentally bewitches’. Not as coolly otherwordly as a ‘Man-Guan’, but very informative as to the nature of matsikanari.
Yes — etymology fans might say — but what is the origin of matsik, and what can *that* tell us about Matsigenka concepts of witchcraft and the like? Fortunately for us, the etymon in question is included in David Payne’s (1991, p.394) paper on Arawak historical linguistics. What we learn there is that the Matsigenka verb matsik comes from Proto-Arawak mahtSi BAD. So, I suppose we can conclude that there was at some point in Arawak cultural history a connection between the notions ‘witchcraft’ and ‘bad’. Not too surprising, but certainly the historical facts make sense.
The moral here is that etymology is hard to do without detailed knowledge of the language and language family in question, and that relying on superficial similarities between words can quickly lead to false etymologies.
Payne, David. 1991. A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions. In D. Derbyshire and Desmond and G. Pullum (Eds.), Handbook of Amazonian Languages, Vol. 3. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 355-500.