Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymology, Serendipity, and Good Luck


By Anatoly Liberman

All historians who purport to reconstruct the past are detectives; consequently, some mysteries are bound to remain unsolved. Those who do not study etymology for a living (the majority of the world population) have no idea how word origins are discovered. To become a professional in this area requires years of training, but all too often expertise and acumen fail to provide the coveted answer: “Where did such and such a word come from?” Every now and then we stumble upon the right solution by chance. To be sure, only persistent players can expect to meet with such a chance, for, as Tchaikovsky put it, inspiration does not visit the lazy. Yet luck and serendipity are not uncommon factors in linguistic pursuits. I can think of three situations.

The policy of scorched earth, or a reward for diligence. When more than twenty years ago I began work on a new etymological dictionary of English, my goal was to become acquainted with everything that had ever been said about the origin of English words and their closest cognates. The authors of the existing English dictionaries mention the works of their predecessors in exceptional cases, partly due to the limitation of space, partly because they have little knowledge of the myriad articles and books that might have made their search more fruitful. Nor is it easy to find the relevant literature, and this is why my mill accepted all kinds of grist, regardless of its quality. Among the 18,000 odd titles I have amassed, many could have been dispensed with, but telephone books and bibliographies cannot afford being choosy. Long ago I obtained through Interlibrary Loan and read an old commentary on the language of the Gothic Bible. Gothic was recorded in the 4th century, and its forms are of great value for comparative Germanic linguistics.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I had seldom read a more useless book. But in one of the footnotes, of which there were hundreds, the author remarked that, in his opinion, thrutsfill, the Gothic word for leprosy (I am using simplified spelling), and its Old English cognate thrustfell have the same root as Engl. thrush, the name of infants’ disease. The idea seemed much more illuminating to me than the universally accepted one, according to which Gothic thruts- is related to words for “swelling” (like Engl. throat); in Old English, the group -st- (thrustfell) was believed to be an alteration of the more ancient -ts- (thrutsfill). The name of the disease (thrush), a word distinct from the bird name, has been explained satisfactorily, even though some dictionaries hedge on this point: the almost indubitable cognates of thrush in the Scandinavian languages mean “rotten.” The symptom caused by thrush (multiple white spots in a baby’s mouth) was likened to rot. Fell, the second component of thrustfell, meant “skin,” as it still does in Modern English (“an animal’s hide or skin with hair on it”). It follows that thrustfell should be understood as “rotten skin” rather than “swollen skin” and that the consonants were switched in Gothic, not in Old English. To my mind, this etymology is excellent. I did not discover it myself, but, if I had not read that otherwise useless book from cover to cover, no one would have known it today, so, in a way, I am its coauthor. And here is my point. I might have spent my whole life trying to find the origin of the Old Germanic name for leprosy and would have drawn blank. The answer turned up where no one could expect to find it.

Rarely taught languages, or a reward for unpredictable knowledge. English etymologists have trouble understanding the connection between two meanings of the word fog: “deep mist” and “a second growth of grass” (this is what was originally called aftermath, that is, “after-mowing”). I happen to know Russian, a language that few Germanic scholars can read fluently, let alone speak. My knowledge of Russian is an accident of nature; I have not done anything for it. In Russian, a field left unsown (“to rest”) is called pod parom, literally “under vapor,” so that an association between moisture (mist, fog) and new grass seems natural to me. Therefore, I can offer a sensible explanation of two fog’s in English. If I knew Irish or Albanian as I know Russian, I would undoubtedly have been able to solve some other riddles of English etymology, for in a study of word origins a parallel is often all one needs to make a possible solution probable.

Delectable rambles, or pure serendipity. Like fog, the English word pimp also has two meanings: one is universally known (“a provider of prostitutes”), the other is dialectal (“a bundle of wood”). When I saw the second pimp in a dictionary, I was struck by its definition: “Pimp. Faggot.” How can it be, I asked myself, that two words related to sex have found themselves in such an unusual union? Greatly puzzled, I began to investigate the etymology of pimp. If its definition were only “a bundle of wood” (and this is what a faggot is), I would hardly have thought of the connection. Two of my previous posts in this blog were devoted to pimp and faggot, so here I will only say what gave me the best clue to their history.

Our students, like students at most American colleges, in order to graduate, are supposed to write senior projects. At Minnesota, those in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch with an interest in language rather than in what is nowadays called culture on our campuses usually end up as my charges. One of them said that he wanted to write a work on the vocabulary of the Nazi time. I told him that our library had a sizable collection of newspapers published in Germany in the thirties and advised him to read some of them, in addition to the many books on the subject. But first I went to the periodical room and read a few issues myself.

In one of the newspapers the word Pimpf (“a small boy; a member of a youth organization under Hitler”) attracted my attention. I had known it before, but it was not active in my German. I immediately thought that Pimpf and pimp must be related, and so they turned out to be. This idea had not occurred to the great etymologists of the past because Pimpf was a rare word in 19th-century German, and even some native scholars, let alone English-speakers, did not know it. People like Friedrich Kluge and other famous German etymologists rarely spoke English They could probably make an eloquent oration in Old English but would have been unable to communicate the simplest thought in the modern language. Pimp, predictably, does not occur in Beowulf; nor was it a permissible word in elegant Victorian literature. To be aware of its existence, one had to live in England, but they lived in Germany. Later dictionaries mainly copied and repackaged older works. This is why the obvious comparison pimp—Pimpf fell between the cracks. If that student had not come to me with his subject, the etymology of pimp would have remained undiscovered.

The next example was also discussed in one of my old posts, but I will mention it because it fits the subject so well. The librarian who at that time was in charge of our Special Collection (“Rare Books”) saw me once reading an 18th-century journal and inquired whether I was the local etymologist who had reportedly explained the origin of the F-word. When I answered in the affirmative, he asked: “Do you know that we have a bunch of letters of James A. H. Murray and Henry Bradley, the first editors of the OED?” The result of his tip was my publication “James Murray at Minnesota.”

Here is my advice to etymologists. Do not despise the trashiest books, learn foreign languages, advise students who are interested in linguistics, and associate as much as possible with the librarians of your institutions. If you follow this advice, you shall have your reward. (The things I recommend are good to do even if you are not an etymologist.)

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

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Might not pod parom be a Slavic calque of a Germanic coincidence? I;m thinking of the use of -st in German ordinals (dreissigste, e.g.), which looks singularly like the -st of the superlative (fleissigste, e.g.), and is apparently a calque of the Gallo-Roman -iesme that Latin -ISSIMUS and the pseudo-suffix -E:SIMUS in vi:ce:simus, tre:simus had both regularly become.

  2. John Cowan

    Arrgh. Tri:ce:simus, of course.

  3. word origins

    [...] of the world population have no idea how word origins are discovered. To become a professional …http://blog.oup.com/2008/06/etymology-serendipity-and-good-luck/Offence taken: Just how offensive is the word ‘pikey’? BBC NewsFormula One commentator Martin [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *