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A Project in a Nutshell

By Anatoly Liberman

The richer the soil, the more luxuriant the flowers. My soil is the database to which Ireferred last week. Spelling can be regulated, pronunciation can be observed, and meaning is the result ofconsensus (earth, sky, wolf, lamb, and so forth mean what we agree they should mean), but the origin of words has to be reconstructed.

Some steps in the history of words are easier to retrace than others. Thus we know for sure that hypocrisy reached English from Classical Greek via Latin and French. The Greek word meant feigning” and was a compound: hupo- meant “under,” and the second element can be glossed as “pretence.” The real work is explaining the origin of the Greek elements, but an English etymologist may
well delegate that task to a Classical scholar.

Numerous words have cognates in the entire Indo-European family. For example, Engl. one,
two, three
> are not borrowings from any language: they have existed “forever,” even though millennia ago they sounded different. A non-specialist will find it amusing to learn that countless suggestions have been put forward to explain how the Indo-Europeans came by their numerals and that despite all the efforts no definitive answer exits. Why one, two, three? Dictionaries are silent on this subject.

>Other words have narrower distribution among languages (only in English, German, and Scandinavian, for example). Their exact origin often remains unknown, for reconstruction is seldom 100% certain. Since antiquity people have been trying to penetrate the obscurity in which the history of words is shrouded and the most interesting part of etymology is not necessarily the answer but the attempts to arrive at it. Shouldn’t an etymological dictionary offer us an overview of at least some reasonable approaches to the riddle rather than shove the safest solution down our throats? Everybody agrees that it should, but no one has written such a dictionary for English.

Twenty years ago, I decided to fill this gap and began
collecting everything that has been printed on the derivation of English
words.  People from all walks of
life have worked for the project, half of them volunteers. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  When I asked them why they decided to
offer their services, they invariably answered: “Because I love words.” style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Some would add that they hated their
jobs and that studying languages had been their dream for years. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  I sent them to the University library
where they looked through thousands of volumes in search of articles, notes,
and reviews dealing with the history of English words. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  This is when Notes and Queries,
Athenaeum, Chambers’ Magazine,
and many,
many others became part of my life. 
Huge boxes that I could not lift and barely legible microfilms kept
coming to us through Interlibrary Loan. 

Nobody can read everything, but what stands in my office and
is stored in my computer is enough for writing the dictionary I began planning
two decades ago.  And now I am
coming to the soil and flowers image that opens this post. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Whatever English word occurred in our
reading was marked, defined, and entered into the computer. style="mso-spacerun: yes">  We are all aware of the enormity of the
vocabulary of English, but one has to look through my database to realize how
remarkably limited native speakers’ knowledge of their language is.

When investigating the history of words, a good deal depends
on analogy.  For example, I think
that the verb chide at one time meant
“brandish sticks.”  (In this
context, it matters little how I arrived at such a strange conclusion.) style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
To make my hypothesis persuasive, I
began to study the etymology of other words meaning “rebuke, reprove; scold,”
in the hope that such development (from exchanging blows to a verbal attack)
was not uncommon.  Although similar
examples cannot prove that a certain reconstruction is correct, they can make
it plausible.  I found what I was
looking for and decided that the etymology I offered for chide style='font-style:normal'> was acceptable.   It also occurred to me that a thesaurus of the words
featured in the database (and there are close to 20,000 of them) would be
useful.  This thesaurus is now
ready, and what I find in it teaches me great humility.

The origin of the word basket is unknown, so why not read what has been said about its
synonyms?  These are the words
defined as “basket” in the database (some of them also mean “wallet, pouch”):

basket, bass, bassinet, booget, cauf, corb, corbel, cowel, creel, cresset,
flasket, frail, gaberlunzie, hopper, junket, kiddle, kipe, kit, lope, maund,
skep, skepple, skippet, teanel, tindal,
style='font-style:normal'>Most illuminating. 

Better luck under “dishonesty”? (Don’t forget that we began
with hypocrisy). style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Bam, bamboozle, barratry,
bawker, bilk, bleu, braid, bull, callifugle, cheat, chiaus, chicane, chisel ~
chizzle, chouse, clip, coath, cod, colt, cozen, crack, crib, dupe, dwell,
fefnicute, fib, flam, flummery, fob, fodger, fog, fub, gammon, gazoozle, geck,
gonk, guggle, gull, hide, hoodwink, jilt, jolly, kid, lie, ligger, malinger,
mump, perjury, sharper, shill, smuggle, speeler, steal, stuff, sucker, swindle,
trick, welch, whicker, yed.
style="mso-spacerun: yes">  Apparently, turpitude has many
faces.  Fefnicutes, if you are
interested, are smart (cute?) kids who cajole their mothers into giving them
sweetmeats; they live in the north of England. 

I did not cull these words from Roget or some other synonym
finder: their origin has been discussed at least once in the literature
collected over the years.  This is
the soil.  The garden will bloom in
the pages of the dictionary to be published by the University of Minnesota
Press in 2007. Two volumes.  If you
want to enrich your vocabulary, you will need a good, sturdy gaberlunzie or
maund to take it home.

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. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

2 Responses to “A Project in a Nutshell”
  1. Rich says:

    Please, please, PLEASE make sure you have backups — probably more than one, and offsite. It would be devastating to lose such work to a faulty hard drive platter.

  2. Mike says:

    Fascinating. I just finished listening to a Teaching Company lecture about the origins of the English language, and now, coming across this post encourages me to learn more.
    There is a story behind every word.

    BTW: University of Minnesota Press you say? Is that allowed? What does it say at the top of this page? Haha.

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