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Monthly Gleanings for February 2012, Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman


There has been a good deal to glean this month because the comments and responses have been numerous and also because, although February is a short month even in a leap year, in 2012 it had five Wednesdays. Among the questions was one about the profession and qualifications of an etymologist. It is a recurring question from young correspondents, and I have answered it briefly more than once, but always in the “gleanings.” It occurred to me that perhaps I should write a short essay on this subject and, if someone else asks me about such things in the future, I will be able to refer to this post. The rest will be discussed next week.

Etymology as an occupation for a breadwinner does not exist. There are no departments of etymology (and most people never learned the difference between etymology and entomology). Unlike other linguists, etymologists do not meet at special conferences and congresses. I even doubt that a dissertation devoted to etymology can nowadays be recommended (books are fine, but not dissertations). When Colonel Pickering asked Professor Henry Higgins whether there was a living in phonetics, Higgins answered: “Oh yes. Quite a fat one.” This cannot be said about etymology.

Those who study and “profess” it are specialists in something else — usually, unless they are journalists, in the history of language and, if they are so lucky as to have an academic job, teach Classical Greek or Latin, or Old English, or any other old language. Although great dictionaries need someone who from time to time updates their current etymologies, they either hire consultants or assign this task to a knowledgeable member of their staff burdened with many other duties. The only exception is the OED (it has a permanent group of etymologists), but one cannot expect to become a Ph.D. and get a position there, just as even a good singer will probably not end up at the Met or La Scala. Popular books on etymology, especially those published by presses with good marketing departments, sell reasonably well, but living on royalties for such books is out of the question.

Etymologists study the origin of words. People have been wondering for millennia why certain combinations of sounds have certain meanings. Why man, tree, eat, red? This quest need not always take us to the beginning of human speech. For example, there is a book about the origin of the phrase hot dog. The now well-known name for a sausage in a bun was coined by some wits in the United States, not by dog worshipers at the dawn of civilization, who, on dog days, sacrificed their hounds to the eye of heaven. That much is clear, and hot does not puzzle us, but why dog?

To find out, one needed endless patience rather than expertise in a dozen foreign languages. Sometimes a dedicated amateur without any familiarity with the intricacies of historical linguistics can solve such riddles. However, there is no certainty: looking through hundreds of old magazines, newspapers, and ads may not yield any worthwhile results. This is the trouble with the profession of an etymologist: convincing answers are never guaranteed, which is bad for dissertations and grant proposals. No one will fund a project titled “In Search of the Proto- Hot Dog.” The explorer who will find the ancestor of all hot dogs, the primordial hot puppy, will be rewarded with thank you and sometimes with an article in a popular magazine (for example, the researcher who traced OK to its beginnings became a minor celebrity), but this is as far as it goes. Etymology is the least lucrative occupation in the world.

This brings me to my next example. Not far from where I live a small “eatery” advertises hot diggity dogs. My spell checker does not know the word diggity, but most readers of this blog probably do. Even though diggity has been traced to its first occurrence, the impulse behind the coinage remains hidden. Why should anyone pronounce such a ridiculous word? Diggity is meaningless slang (call it ludic if you prefer a nobler term), but saying so does not answer the question. Dignity is equally problematic, except that its path to English from French, from Latin, has been documented in detail. The word’s ancient root must have sounded approximately as dek- (decent, deign, dainty, and condign are its cognates). What is dek? Why dek? When we are not dealing with moo and quack-quack, we usually have to stop at the last barrier; however, even being able to cover part of the way is a smashing success. An etymologist may hitch his wagon to a star, but the star will, most likely, ignore the effort. (At a meeting at which I was present many years ago, the dean said to the orator: “Please stop speaking in metaphors.”)

The diggety-dignity case shows the complexity of etymology. Some words are native (diggity certainly is), others have been borrowed from “abroad” (for instance, dignity). To arrive at a persuasive conclusion, an etymologist has to know many languages: the more, the better. Remembering tens of thousands of heterogeneous words is necessary for successful work. There is no English etymology without French and Latin, and no Spanish etymology without Latin and Arabic, to give two random examples. Since some words are old (that is, we have records of their existence going back to antiquity), etymologists should also know the history of language they are planning to investigate. Another point is “methodology,” the favorite bugaboo of funding organizations.

Many words have cognates, but one has to know how to find them, and finding them is necessary, because differences in their form and meaning may supply a clue to the sought-for origin. Is hubba-hubba a cognate of hubris? Is melon related to melody, wade to water, and buzz to buzzard? To put it another way, did people begin shouting hubba-hubba because they were overwhelmed by hubris, and did water get its name because one has to wade through rivers and streams? Do baby buzzards buzz, do ripe melons sing, and so forth?

Rasmus Christian Rask, a great Danish linguist, who stands at the foundation of Indo-European comparative linguistics. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Scholars discovered some rules that make it possible to answer such questions very late. The word ark, as in Noah’s Ark, has been known since the beginning of English writing. It resembles Latin arca (the same meaning). A curious coincidence (like buzz and buzzard)? Is ark a borrowing of arca or its cognate? An elementary procedure allows us to say “not a coincidence” and “not a cognate,” but this procedure became clear less than two centuries ago. Before that, inquisitive people did not go beyond comparing look-alikes. As time goes on, detectives become more and more sophisticated.

However, etymology is not an exact science, and in many cases it remains unclear whether we have strung together real or fake cognates. Despite this uncertainty, the “methodology” has to be mastered, and doing so is serious and time consuming business. The backbone of etymology is historical phonetics, or the regularities that govern sound change. Regrettably, when words in two languages match phonetically, they may have meanings too different for comparison. An etymologist should learn the regularities of both historical semantics and historical phonetics. Such regularities are sometimes called laws, but laws they are not.

Let me repeat: Very often all the forms have been found, but the origin of the word escapes us. Serendipity and inspiration play an outstanding role in etymological work. Read the posts in this blog on conundrum and bigot, to see how things sometimes happen. Or read the recent post on dude. The “ultimate” origin of dude is not much clearer than that of diggity. So here is my conclusion.

Etymology looks easy to non-specialists. That is why it has traditionally attracted madmen (they tend to invent a simple recipe for discovering the origin of all words of all languages) and ambitious ignoramuses, who believe that all one needs in etymological research is a blend of pushfulness and ingenuity. Never mind them. Etymology, which combines elements of science and art, sober analysis and inspiration, and which needs a huge stock of knowledge and tons of capricious luck, is a breathtakingly interesting area of study, but it should be approached after many years of work in historical linguistics and even then with humility. Yet: knock on the door (knock hard) and it shall open.

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

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