There was a time when historical linguistics was one of the most prestigious disciplines in the humanities. At school, Latin and Classical Greek were shoved down young boys’ unwilling throats, and it seemed natural to look at languages with the eyes of a historian. Early in the 19th century, regular sound correspondences between languages were discovered, and it became possible to research word origins, rather than indulging in fruitless guesses. It had seemed so natural to string together similar sounding words and derive one from another. The discovery of sound correspondences made it clear that Latin pater and English father are related precisely because initial p- and f- are different, and, conversely, that if a Latin and an English word begin with f-, they cannot be related. Words turned out to be cognate (or congeners) that did not have a single sound in common. For instance, it has been suggested that Latin lingua and Russian iazyk (stress on the second syllable; both mean “tongue”) are congeners. Whether they really are is beside the point, for they may be such. Sound correspondences were renamed sound laws, and etymology, formerly an object of ridicule, gave way to a respectable science of word origins. History of language became a synonym for general linguistics. It retained this lofty position until roughly the first years after World War I.
The beginning of the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented efflorescence of constructivist thinking. Cubism is a prime example of the decomposition of traditional art forms. Not only Mozart but even Brahms would have refused to take Prokofiev and Stravinsky’s works for music. Avant-garde poetry would have offended Wordsworth and Longfellow. In language and literary studies, the focus shifted from historicism to structural analysis. Historical linguistics barely survived the onslaught of what came to be known as structuralism, though the founders of structuralism, like their opponents, knew how language developed and at one time were exposed to the same gigantic doses of Latin and Greek. Their partial indifference to historical linguistics was deliberate: it did not come from ignorance, but their pupils and the pupils of their pupils often did not know enough to continue the work of the century gone by, and historical studies fell into desuetude.
Fortunately, the general public had no notion of what went on in the halls of Academia and retained its interest in word origins, an interest that is inborn in us. People have been asking where words came from since the beginning of recorded time. Etymology is rarely taught on our campuses, but the shelves of even small libraries are well stocked with books on “the loom of language” and “the romance of words.” Healthy instincts are ineradicable and pay no attention to fads and fashions. As an active etymologist I receive queries from all over the world. Even when predictable, they are thought provoking. Many people want to know the origin of their family names. They usually have an idea of what they will hear from me, but a second opinion never hurts. Another never-ceasing source of curiosity is the origin of slang. But there are many other things to ask about. Where did ain’t come from? What accounts for the odd spelling of women? Is the popular origin of posh right? Sometimes I know the answer or know where to find it, sometimes I have to concede defeat: “Origin unknown.” Knowledge, once it frees itself from charlatans’ grip, has its limits. What counts is not whether I am able to satisfy every correspondent, but that the fount feeding their letters never dries up. As long as it bubbles, etymology will remain in good shape.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. If you have a comment or a question, please click HERE and fill in the “Post a comment” section.