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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. 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.”

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. Thus, despite the seemingly obvious connection, the verb surround is not related to round. Its original meaning was “to overflow,” from the root unda “wave.” It had a synonym abound (that is, ab-ound) “to overflow,” figuratively “to be plentiful.” Still another “overflow” was redound (from red-ound; cf. redundant). All of them derive from the same root as the verbs inundate and undulate and the water sprite undine, memorable from fairy tales and music. The slang word oof means “money.” 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.” Few people doubted that pedigree goes back to the unattested Old French phrase pie de grue 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. All those and countless other brilliant etymologies are anonymous. No one cares who deciphered surround, oof, pedigree, and the rest. 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 London. It still exists but has long since lost its informal, homey character. At that time, N&Q was like a newsletter (or a blog). 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 (India and the United States among them) began to publish their own N&Q. 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 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. Of those 148 appeared in N&Q (the other two were published in The Academy, a popular scholarly journal). The last of them, on round robin, is dated 1897, the year of his death. What an array of words that man
discussed! Toadeater, beefeater, askance, embezzle, muff “fool,” cobra, henchman, hobbledehoy, and cormorant, among so many others. He was the only one who would fearlessly take on Skeat and with whose arguments Skeat sometimes had to agree The readers of N&Q were overawed by the breadth of his knowledge. 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 as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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