The word transfigure I picked up not from the church fathers who mined Cicero's works in early years, but from Laurenz Lersch, whose passage on Cicero's etymology in Die Sprachphilosophie der alten led me through my own alleyways: I do not know German, so I tried to decipher the passage by reading about early understanding of irony (for Lersch claims Cicero is ironic in his etymologies) and the Stoic relation towards etymology. I entreat any interested readers to share a summary or translation of the three Lersch pages. I think Lersch - who seems to have influenced so much of what I read, but is hardly cited - explains that Cicero wanted to connect [his own reformulations of] Greek philosophy at a time when such was not interesting to the general reader. He hid his literary aspirations in irony, which means saying less than one thinks.
Speaking of alleyways: one is reminded that something will always be missing from sight, round the corner. While many scholars seem to maintain that the type of "Socratic irony," that seeks to teach via what may be viewed as provocation, was only recognised when Aristotle wrote about it, what do we do with pre-Socratic thinkers like Heraclitus whose famous fragment has to do with a nature that hides? To expect speech to be a faithful mirror to what may be observed might actually be conceived as a weakness if it is realised that what is reflected is never the whole story though it may appear to be. This mirror sends Narcissus to eternal sleep: the εἴρων is the ellipsis leading from troubled times to the subject, begging from the slums of confusion for creative resolution.
But I digress. And will add just one more point before turning more faithfully to Cicero: one book on etymology suggests that irony is cultural, referencing a Greek and Oriental habit of punning. I would add that irony is also a way of coping in cultures that stop making sense. There is no need for it where Dives is thriving, chomping away. But M. Tully Cicero lived in turbulent times.
That said, "the curious etymologies and generally forced allegorical explanations of the mythological fables" that he wrote were "not very well adapted to gain acceptance with the people". The irony in his etymologies seems to be that while he criticised Stoic etymology, he was often simultaneously upholding Stoic views (as noted by the Renaissance thinker Turnebi).
Some scholars (e.g.) argue that Cicero chose to make a deliberate split from antiquarians like Varro who, like the Stoics, continued to use etymology as a basis for their arguments. They observe that Tully only uses it ironically - aside from in De re publica.
Cicero seems to explain the liberty he takes with his interpretation of etymology in Academica I.vii: "But the dialecticians' ... use words of their own ... either new names have to be coined for new things, or names taken from other things have to be used metaphorically. This being the practise of the Greeks, who have now been engaged in these studies for so many generations, how much more ought it to be allowed to us, who are now attempting to handle these subjects for the first time!" He also discusses this in Topics viii. Below, I will list excerpts where Tully handles names - largely those mentioned by Lersch, but also a few more, so we can see for ourselves the ironic tone and broader approach. If I were to write a conclusion to this post, it would have something to do with Bakhtinian battleground of language and Sims' peripheries.
From De Officiis: I.6 "I shall, therefore, at this time and in this investigation follow chiefly the Stoics, not as a translator, but, as is my custom, I shall at my own option and discretion draw from those sources in such measure and in such manner as shall suit my purpose."
I.23: "We may follow the Stoics who diligently investigate the etymology of words; and we may accept their statement that 'good faith' is so called because what is promised is 'made good' although some may find this derivation rather far-fetched."
From De gloria: "to imitate the stupidity of the Stoics".
From De natura deorum: I.xxx: "Should not the physical philosopher therefore, that is, the explorer and tracker-out of nature, be ashamed to go to minds besotted with habit for evidence of truth?"
II. xxviii: "Do you see therefore how from a true and valuable philosophy of nature has been evolved this imaginary and fanciful pantheon? ... These stories and these beliefs are utterly foolish; they are stuffed with nonsense and absurdity of all sorts. But though True repudiating these myths with contempt, we shall nevertheless be able to understand the personality and the nature of the divinities pervading the substance of the several elements"
II.xxvi: he gives the Stoic etymology but then gives his own interpretation (like Off. 1.6)
III.xvii he claims to have learnt more about how to worship the gods from the pots bequeathed by Numa than from the theories of the Stoics
III.xxiv he argues that etymology is stupid, that “there will be no name of which you could not make the derivation clear by altering one letter” and calls "strained etymologies" a "dangerous practise" (though through the character of Cotta; in book II, the comments are Balbus').
Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees. Brush: smoke from DeviantART.