Speaking of tongues…
In the same way I am not a lawyer despite inflicting my sometimes sadly-earned knowledge of copyright law on students, I am by no measure a linguist of any type other than the armchair variety…and this despite taking an excellent Intro to Linguistics class from the highly regarded Dr. Kaplan.
In my defense, I was rather distracted at the time by extra-curricular activities of the sort that find no place on my resume. And I had no idea what linguistics was or what linguists did. I assumed then, as many do today based on the continued expression of annoyance by linguists who are asked how many languages they speak, that to be a linguist meant being multi-lingual. And, indeed, this is the spirit of the first definition in most dictionaries, such as the OED, which defines a linguist as "A person who is skilled in the learning or use of foreign languages" or Merriam-Webster, which describes a linguist as "a person accomplished in languages," and notes, "especially: one who speaks several languages."
From the Latin lingua (tongue, language), the earliest recorded use of the word "linguist" dates back to 1582, in a marginal comment in the Douay-Rheims Bible mocking those who speak in tongues rather than prophesize as "Much like to some fond Linguists of our time, who thinke them selues better then a doctor of Diuinitie that is not a Linguist." Lingua is also easily recognizable as the source of various common words today, such as lingo and bilingual—though sadly it is not the source of linger or lingerie (which I embarrassingly pronounced "linger-ee" for too long) for which folk etymologies would write themselves.
The evolution of linguist from synonymous with polyglot to one who studies language and finally one who works in the field of linguistics follows the contours of the birth and subsequent evolution of the modern discipline that would emerge 200 years after Douay-Rheims’ biblical observation.
The broad study of language and its history led to philology, including comparative language studies and the recreation of Proto-Indo-European and other early, undocumented languages, and ultimately to the plethora of linguistic areas of study (and subject of an endless array of pop science articles and books) including historical linguistics, language acquisition, etymology, syntax, morphology, phonology,
grammar, sociolinguistics and so on, right up to the burgeoning field of computational linguistics enabled by advances in both raw computing power and the creation of artificial intelligence systems.
At the same time, linguistics has also abandoned most of its formerly prescriptive approach, which was deeply intertwined with colonialist thinking—and shed many grammar pedants along the way—in favor of descriptive pursuits that seek to explain how and why languages exist and function rather than how someone thinks they should. This is arguably morally sound but also pragmatic because, as Bill Bryson memorably put it, "usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines."
Thus modern linguistic studies includes everything from fascinating explorations of internet language, emoji and memes to explaining the complete nature and grammar of American Sign Language and the structure of dialects that have been wrongly dismissed as incomplete, including African-American Vernacular English.
As Arika Okrent put it in her book In the Land of Invented Languages, which explores intentionally created languages from Esperanto, Klingon and Elvish to Blissymbolics and Loglan:
The job of the linguist, like that of the biologist or the botanist, is not to tell us how nature should behave, or what its creations should look like, but to describe those creations in all their messy glory and try to figure out what they can teach us about life, the world, and, especially in the case of linguistics, the workings of the human mind.
But this is easier said than done given that "messy glory." Perhaps language and lingerie—and thus linguistics—are related after all…not etymologically, but in their shared function of concealing and revealing at once. None other than Ludwig Wittgenstein noted this paradox in one of the few parts of his Tractatus I can claim to kind of understand, when he wrote:
Language disguises thought, so that one cannot infer, from the outward form of the clothing, the form of the thought clothed by it.
The pursuit of the scientific understanding of language will always exist in a taut relationship with language as a means of artistic expression and the ineffable aspects of communication. The science and romance of language are lovers who just can’t quit one another even though their relationship both nourishes and diminishes them. Because for each example of, as Orwell said and demonstrated in 1984, "thought corrupting language and language corrupting thought," a dynamic never as clear as it is today in our sharply polarized political conversations that are both a bane to our culture and a gift to linguists, there is also the eternal hope that through language we can reach beyond ourselves and even beyond connection to others, to something pure and beautiful. Flaubert put this hope best in his (spoiler alert) tragic novel Madame Bovary when he wrote:
Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.