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English Etymology and a Happy New Year

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By Anatoly Liberman

Shortly before the end of 2009, the University of Minnesota Press brought out a bibliography of English etymology, my database, the fruit of the loom that was set in motion more than two decades ago, and a word of gratitude to a hundred or so of my collaborators and supporters is due today. The introduction to the bibliography contains the traditional section “Acknowledgments.” In the tenth century, lists of names (of kings, ancestors, horses, and dwarfs, let alone ships) were read with interest, but in the twenty-first? Will anyone study (“peruse”) my acknowledgments? Even I am beginning to forget some of my first helpers, especially those who worked only for a few months. But most stayed longer, and one, now both an assistant and a close friend, never left. I remember them as they were when we met, young and old, nurses and parking lot attendants, part-time janitors and retired librarians, able-bodied men and severely handicapped women. All of them were offered the same question: “Why do you want to participate in this project?” The usual answer was: “I have always loved words.” Occasionally they added that they hated their jobs and dreamed of doing research in a university library. Those were volunteers. My paid assistants did not get rich while reading journals and sitting at the computer, but the idea that no analogue of our bibliography existed in Indo-European studies and that the final product would benefit the world in which we live united us. I worked side by side with them. Proud of their achievement, they called the project very unique, and it took some time to teach them to drop very. Winters did not freeze our enthusiasm, summers did not suffocate us with their humidity, and nothing could cloy the infinite variety of the scholarly literature on the origin of English words.

However unique, the project had a pathetically trivial need, namely, money—very little money, but still a few thousand dollars every year, to pay undergraduate assistants (my graduate assistants were few and still remain wildly beyond my means) and to defray the costs of programming and copying. The world, which, as noted, would be the beneficiary of our work, was not in a hurry to accept the gift and be saved, but the University of Minnesota had infinite trust in me, and we lived on small grants for a long time. Then a miracle happened, and I coined the word mid-Westerner, for rescue came when there seemed to be no hope. A husband and wife team listened to my passionate presentation, agreed that there was no future for humanity without a bibliography of English etymology and gave me a handsome grant. Handsome is that handsome does. Much later another philanthropist, himself a language historian, added a similar sum to my budget, and with my parsimony verging on stinginess I’ll be in clover for quite some time. I often read that people who travel to distant countries or embark on great enterprises end up saying that at the end of the way they learned a great deal about themselves. This seems a skimpy reward for such gigantic efforts. Unlike them, I learned nothing about myself in my wanderings but a lot about word origins and those around me. I discovered that no amount of institutional ignorance and highly esteemed claptrap can overpower innate kindness, common sense, and love of genuine scholarship. This gives me hope not only for 2010 but for many years beyond that round date.

The best-known cliché of numerous introductions sounds approximately so: “If I had known what this work entails, I would not have begun it.” By contrast, I never doubted the magnitude of the task (to collect everything said in articles and reviews on the origin of English words, however veiled that information might be), never believed that any bibliography could be complete, or that the result would be perfect. The following words by Samuel Johnson have been quoted to death: “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to be quite true.” Unfortunately, several etymological dictionaries I have used belie Johnson’s dictum, for language studies would have been much better off without them, but in principle, we may agree with Johnson. The great etymologist Walter W. Skeat wrote in the winter of his days (1890): “But the dictionary-maker must expect, on the one hand, to be snubbed when he makes a mistake, and on the other, to be neglected when he is right.” The same is true of a bibliography maker. Here it is, a book, 950 pages long, not counting the so-called front matter, gathering over 20,000 titles published in the course of more than three centuries in 23 or 24 languages (I have lost count). About 13,000 English words are featured in it. Some are or were current in a remote village and nowhere else. Others have been in the limelight forever. God is among them (its origin has not been discovered). The numerals from one to ten are there (all attempts to find out why people say one, two, three, and so on have failed). But how many of us can recognize bawbee, joey, scriddick, and countless other names of coins? Looking over the word list is like reading a novel by Jules Verne.

We have leafed through every volume of all the linguistic periodicals we could lay our hands on, both scholarly and popular. Occasional titles came from journals devoted to beer brewing, sexuality, and numismatics. We were all-inclusive, but we overlooked a lot and are now reading some journals again. Those who have not seen the entire run of The Gentleman’s Magazine, Notes and Queries, The Edinburgh Review, and the rest cannot imagine the joy they missed. The news (“War in Afghanistan” and “The Irish Question” in a worm-eaten volume of the 19th century, “Lord Byron’s Latest Poem” in The Literary Gazette), the dawn of serious etymology (Leibnitz’s suggestion on the derivation of the word blazon in Journal des Savants for 1692; the earliest citation in the bibliography), the thrill of cutting pages in a book that has lain dormant for 200 years, the discovery of James A. H. Murray and Henry Bradley’s letters at the University of Minnesota. The list is unending.

What will change, now that the bibliography is out? Finding the literature on the origin of words is extremely hard. This literature has now been, to a certain extent, made public. Go to the library and read it in 23 languages, from Faroese to Slovenian. The gaps are taken for granted, but remember the case of an imperfect watch. I know better than anyone else how imperfect this watch is. The book was about a year in the making. Since the day of submission the database has grown by more than 600 titles. It would have been nice if they had been included. In 2020 we may welcome a second edition. Before this happens, enjoy what you have. Take p. 528, for example: cullet, cullion, cullis, cully, culprit, culter, culver, culver-keys, cum, cumber, cumble, cummerbund, cummin, cunliff. I will stop here, for cun- is a dangerous group, but rest assured that it is represented fully in the volume. The words in bold have been underlined by the spellchecker. But do many people know that cullet means “broken glass,” that cullion is a variant of gullion “scoundrel,” that cum (which the spellchecker must have taken for a Latin preposition) is a clipped form of pennicum “prayer book” (for which a special entry is given)? Cummerbund is the name of a garment, cullis is a gutter in a roof, cunliff is “part of a kiln,” and so it goes. About the origin of each of them somebody has said something. What a feast, and everybody is invited!


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.”

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One Response to “English Etymology and a Happy New Year”
  1. Thanks! I have here the library copy. Many libraries should get this fine reference work. It offers an extraordinarily notable advance towards filling a need in the vast expanse between some rather good dictionaries–though often too terse in etymology sections and at times glacially slow to correct known errors–and another extreme of unedited online speculation. The Introduction p.xxiv says: “Some time in the future, a revised and enlarged edition of this bibliography may appear in digital form.” I hope so, digital and online and linking worthy online contributions, and that this printed book will attract financial investment in this contribution to learning to make that a continually-edited online reality.

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