On several recent occasions, I came across the word anthology and noticed that I had no idea what its constituent parts meant. I found this a bit unusual since most of the time, when confronted with a word that ends in “-ology,” you kind of know subconsciously where it comes from: geo-logy is the study of “geo” which has something to do with Earth, bio-logy studies the living, and anthropo-logy is a study of humans. But “anthology” gave me pause since I suddenly realized that I could not figure out what “anthology” was a study of. Furthermore, the meaning of the word — a collection of best written works — seemed not to really be about studying anything. So I decided to look up its origin.
To my surprise, I discovered that unlike geology, biology, or anthropology, the word anthology has a very different history. Most of the “-ology” words derive from the ancient Greek root “logos” which means word, reason, or discourse. However, the word “logos” itself comes from the Greek verb “legein” which has two meanings: “to speak, to say” (from which “logos” originates), as well as an older meaning — “to pick, to gather.”
It is from this second meaning of “legein” that we have anthology which is the fusion of “anthos” — flower and “logia” — gathering. So an anthology of best written works is a collection of flowers, which I thought was a very apt and beautiful metaphor for the concept.
For their part, the verb “legein” and its Latin cousin “legere” derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *leg whose primary meaning is “to pick, to gather, to discern,” and it is a very prolific root in all Indo-European languages. There are, of course, many well-known offspring through its later “logos” brand (e.g. dialogue, monologue, epilogue), but there are also many words originating through its humble primary meaning “to pick, to gather” — some examples are: to select, to elect, to collect, to catalogue. An interesting offshoot is the word “legion” which is a “gathering” or a “collection” of soldiers; just as a “legend” is a collection of stories for reading.
If you imagine some Bronze Age tribe picking berries and mushrooms and coming up with an uttering to denote this simple activity, it is quite awe-inspiring to realize that the grain of that basic idea — choosing some items but not others — is still present when we participate in elections, read anthologies, and go to lectures about Roman legions. So many layers of abstraction!
I also looked through the other (anthos) branch of anthology’s etymological tree, but regrettably on that side the pickings are slim; the only non-botany word that I could find is Anthotype which is one of the precursors of modern photography so named because its photosensitive material was derived from flower petals.
I for one think that this dearth of anthos-based words is a waste of a perfectly great root, so to revive its use I propose Anthosphere — the collection of all the world’s flowers (by analogy with biosphere) and Anthomania — having a passion for flowers
(Disclaimer: I have absolutely no knowledge of Latin or ancient Greek so all of this is based on my reading dictionary entries listed under Bibliography section below)
 Despite searching for a long time, I could not find a single accepted theory on how “legein” from its original meaning “to gather, to pick” eventually came to mean “to read, to speak” but a couple of explanations that made sense to me are (a) in the early, primitive act of reading, when it was just being invented, people had to painstakingly discern symbols and gather them together to form words. (b) The stories that people told to each other before the invention of writing were usually collections of their experiences so when you told stories you transmitted collectively “gathered” body of knowledge.
The two sources used for this post are the corresponding Word Origin & History entries on dictionary.com (which is what initially piqued my interest) and the explanation of the root in the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots edited by Calvert Watkins.
1630s, from L. anthologia , from Gk. anthologia “flower-gathering,” from anthos “a flower” (see anther) + logia “collection, collecting,” from legein “gather” (see lecture). Modern sense (which emerged in Late Gk.) is metaphoric, “flowers” of verse, small poems by various writers gathered together.
c.1200, from O.Fr. legion “Roman legion” (3,000 to 6,000 men, under Marius usually with attached cavalry), from L. legionem (nom. legio ) “body of soldiers,” from legere “to choose, gather,” also “to read” (see lecture).
late 14c., “action of reading, that which is read,” from M.L. lectura “a reading, lecture,” from L. lectus , pp. of legere “to read,” originally “to gather, collect, pick out, choose” (cf. election ), from PIE *leg- “to pick together, gather, collect” (cf. Gk. legein “to say, tell, speak, declare,” originally, in Homer, “to pick out, select, collect, enumerate;”
The full root explanation is available on Google books and you can find it here:
On page 47, see entry for leg-