Unsung Heroes of Etymology
by Anatoly Liberman
Those who look up the origin of a word in a dictionary are
rarely interested in the sources of the information they find there. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Nor do they realize how debatable most of
this information is. Yet serious research
stands behind even the controversial statements in a modern etymological
dictionary. Accepted hypotheses make
their way into print, while guesswork does not.
Unfortunately, together with guesswork, many promising conjectures are
left by the wayside. Dictionary makers
know that the results of linguistic reconstruction are seldom final and “better
safe than sorry” is their motto. Hence
the recurring phrase, so irritating to non-specialists: “origin unknown.” style='mso-spacerun:yes'>
Yet the origin of many words is known, and sometimes we owe the discovery of the truth to a rare
display of ingenuity, to the gift of discarding the trivial and combining
elements that at first sight do not belong together. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Thus, despite the seemingly obvious connection,
the verb surround is not related to style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>round.
Its original meaning was “to overflow,” from the root style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> unda “wave.” style='mso-spacerun:yes'> It had a synonym abound (that is, ab-ound)
“to overflow,” figuratively “to be plentiful.”
Still another “overflow” was
redound (from red-ound; cf. style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>redundant). All of them derive from the
same root as the verbs inundate and style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> undulate and the water sprite style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>undine, memorable from fairy tales and
music. The slang word style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>oof means “money.” style='mso-spacerun:yes'> It had puzzled word historians until a smart
amateur traced it to the spelling pronunciation of the first element of Yiddish
ooftisch “on the table.” style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Few people doubted that pedigree goes back to the unattested Old French phrase style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>pie de grue. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> But why?
The riddle was solved by a specialist in heraldry, who explained that a
vertical line between two slashes pointed in the opposite directions (a mark
resembling a crane’s foot, and this is what pie
de grue means) used to denote succession in a genealogical tree. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> All those and countless other brilliant
etymologies are anonymous. No one cares
who deciphered surround, oof, style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>pedigree, and the rest. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Below I will devote a few lines to a man who
deserves a place in the etymological hall of fame, even though ungrateful
posterity seems to have forgotten him.
In 1850 a biweekly magazine Notes and Queries [N&Q] made its debut in
It still exists but has long since lost its informal, homey character. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> At that time, N&Q was like a newsletter (or a blog). style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Correspondents from all over the country told
short stories about their discoveries, shared bits of information, and asked
questions about literature, history, “antiquities”—anything that caught their
attention. Someone would suggest an
answer, and since almost everything that was received was printed, discussions
might last for months. The magazine was
an enormous success. Not only other
counties but also other countries (
among them) began to publish their own N&Q. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Conjectures on word origins occupied a
noticeable place in N&Q, and the
popularity of the periodical was such that even Walter W. Skeat, the celebrated
etymologist, and the great James A. H. Murray, the editor of the style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>Oxford English Dictionary, sent their
contributions and “queries” to it. In
1861 a note on the word awning appeared
in its pages. It was signed F. Chance.
When I saw this name for the first time, I took it for a
pseudonym meaning “fair chance” (most authors in N&Q hid behind initials or silly pseudonyms), but I was
mistaken. The name belonged to Dr. Frank Chance (June 22, 1826—July 1, 1897), an
immensely erudite man. In my database I
have 150 titles by him, and I collect only works on the origin of English words. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> Of those 148 appeared in N&Q (the other two were published in The Academy, a popular scholarly journal). style='mso-spacerun:yes'> The last of them, on round robin, is dated 1897, the year of his death. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> What an array of words that man
discussed! Toadeater, beefeater, askance, embezzle, muff “fool,” style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> cobra, henchman, hobbledehoy, and style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'> cormorant, among so many others. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> He was the only one who would fearlessly take
on Skeat and with whose arguments Skeat sometimes had to agree. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> The readers of N&Q were overawed by the breadth of his knowledge. style='mso-spacerun:yes'> His greatest drawback was his lack of vanity:
he sent letters to N&Q and
apparently did not need greater exposure.
If he had collected his notes in a book and got it published by the
Clarendon Press (as Skeat did), his miscellany would have survived him by more
than a century. As things stand, one
never sees references to him. For years
I have been trying to rectify this injustice.
N&Q published an obituary
of Frank Chance on p. 121 of Volume XII, 8th Series, 1897.
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. Email your questions on word origins to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.