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Criticizing the OED

By Anatoly Liberman


The literature on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary is extensive, but I am not sure that there is a book-length study of the reception of this great dictionary. When in 1884 the OED’s first fascicle reached the public, it was met with near universal admiration. I am aware of only two critics who went on record with their opinion that the venture was doomed to failure because it would take forever to complete, because all the words can not and should not be included in a dictionary, and because the slips at Murray’s disposal must contain numerous misspellings and mistakes. But supporters outnumbered denigrators (whose point, though grievously unfocused, was well taken) by a hundred to one. A similar thing happened when, also in 1884, Friedrich Kluge published the first edition of his German etymological dictionary. Two eminent philologists hastened to explain why the dictionary was no good. Their harsh voices were drowned in a chorus of enthusiastic reviewers.

However, some criticism of the OED was constructive, even if not always friendly or fair. Right after the appearance of the first installment, Notes and Queries began publishing letters with additions and antedatings. Once Murray responded in irritation (which, judging by his correspondence, happened to be his prevailing mood) that it would have been more profitable if lists of rare words had been sent to his office in advance (while they could still be made use of or rejected) rather than as an exhibit of the critic’s erudition and assiduity.

With regard to antedatings, an open season on earlier citations was declared at once and still continues, sometimes with negligible results (two or three years), sometimes with important consequences for a word’s history and etymology. Although Murray had well-informed readers and an excellent coordinator in the United States, discussion in The Nation invariably pointed to inaccuracies and mistakes in matters concerning American usage. For all these reasons and for many more, the revision of the OED, which is now underway, has great value. At Oxford, all the critical remarks, even the less substantive ones, must have been collected, studied, and taken into account. A book treating them would still be interesting to read.

Etymologies in the first edition of the OED were superb, mainly because Murray and Bradley happened to be great philologists. Every student of word origins begins by consulting their suggestions. Disagreement can be taken for granted, though it is remarkable how well those etymologies have withstood all attacks. Even when the hypotheses offered in the dictionary can be called into question, better ones have not been too numerous. But since credit should be given where credit is due, we need not ignore reasonable conjectures. I want to recount two episodes in the etymological criticism of the OED. The articles appeared in The Nation in 1910 and 1914 respectively. I ran into them last month, so that neither citation is in my bibliography.

ALFALFA (by Francis Philip Nash): “The etymology of alfalfa, the name of a well-known variety of lucern (Medicaga sativa) is, I believe, wrongly given in our dictionaries. The Century Dictionary states that it comes to us from the Spanish, and further says that ‘it is said to be from the Arabic alfaçfaç the best kind of fodder.’ This assumes that the first syllable is the Arabic article al, which begins so many Arabic words adopted into European languages. The Century Dictionary does not give its authority; but I find the same derivation in Roque-Barcia’s great Spanish encyclopædic dictionary, whence I presume Murray’s Dictionary also took it. Murray says ‘identified by Pedro de Alcalá with Arabic alfaçfaç, the best sort of fodder.” Nash goes on to say that this etymology is wrong from every point of view, especially because the older form of the plant name is alfalfez, which he explains as alf-al-Fez “the fodder of, or from, Fez.” “The Spaniards, or the Moors, doubtless introduced this kind of fodder from Morocco (Fez) and hence the designation.”

It is not for me to evaluate an Arabic etymology, and I am always wary of statements containing the word doubtless, but it seems that Nash made a good point, as those who will read the whole of his article will probably agree. English dictionaries contain words borrowed from multiple languages. Even the most versatile experts can have no firsthand knowledge of them. Thousands of fugitive notes like the one I have quoted above are extremely hard to hunt down. Tons of useful information lie buried in popular periodicals and may never be recovered. Perhaps this post will help lexicographers to deal with alfalfa.

A Bare-tailed Woolly Opossum (Caluromys philander), an opossum from South America, 2007. Photo by Ramon Campos. Creative Commons License.

PHILANDER. If philander makes you think only of love making, you are behind the times. Leo Wiener, a distinguished scholar, wrote an article in which he dealt with philander “a little animal in southeastern Asia and in Australia.” His piece is a furious attack on what he calls philological fallacies. Although his wrath is vented not only on the linguists ignorant of animal lore, we will stay with the philander. The Century Dictionary is mocked for deriving the word from Greek, “without entering into the reason for the philanthropic attitude of this bandicoot.”

Next comes the OED. “The Oxford Dictionary, quoting Morris, ‘Austral. Eng.,’ is more specific, for it says: ‘From the name of Philander de Bruyn, who saw in 1711 in the garden of the Dutch Governor of Batavia the species named after him being the first member known to Europeana.’ This circumstantial description suffers from two slight errors. In the first place, the discoverer of the animal was named Cornelius, not Philander, de Bruyn, and secondly, this Cornelius de Bruyn distinctly says that the Malay name of the animal was pelandoh.” Obviously, slight (slight errors) was used ironically, for everything in the etymological part of the OED’s entry appeared to be wrong.

Wiener should perhaps have restrained his ire, but his conclusion is, unfortunately, correct. He mentions two “fundamental errors,” of which the second is more important than the first. It is “that blind veneration of authority to which philologists are addicted more than any other class of mortals. The Oxford Dictionary quotes Morris; Morris, in all probability, had an authority before him and all the future dictionaries will quote the Oxford Dictionary, all unaware of the fact that they are only compounding a spiritual felony.” Plagiarism has been the principal method of lexicography since the beginning of time: dictionary makers keep copying from one another. This is no less true of etymology than of any other area of modern lexicography. With such splendid sources as Skeat, the OED, and The Century Dictionary, there seems to be no need for further research, let alone for checking their sources. Even repeating their mistakes looks like a worthy occupation. Frist, few people will detect the “fallacy.” Second, erring with the greatest authorities is almost an honor (isn’t it?). The result is indeed “compounding spiritual felony.” On the other hand, if one begins to explore the history of everything from alfalfa to philander, the dictionary will never be completed. You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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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  1. John Cowan

    Well, the OED3 has caught up with philander:

    French filander (1718 in a French translation of De Bruyn) or its probable etymon Dutch filanders (C. De Bruyn Reizen Moskovie, Persie en Indie (1711) lvi. 374/1); further etymology unknown. Compare scientific Latin philander, specific name (in Didelphis philander; Linnaeus Systema Naturæ (1735)) and Philander, genus name (M. J. Brisson Regnum Animale (1762) 285).

    An etymology from the name Philander de Bruyn appears to arise from a misunderstanding in E. E. Morris Austral. Eng. (1898) at Philander of the name of Cornelius de Bruyn (compare quot. 1737 at sense 1).

    The following quotations suggest transference of the name of the mouse deer, Malay pelanduk (see pelandok n.) (taken to mean ‘rabbit’ by Western writers), with subsequent assimilation to the forename Philander:

    1800 G. Shaw Gen. Zool. I. ii. 477 Molucca Opossum… It is found in great plenty in Aroe and Solor, and is known in some parts of the East indies by the name of Pelander Aroe, or the Aroe Rabbet.

    1827 E. Griffith et al. Cuvier’s Animal Kingdom II. 70 The name..of philander is not, as might be supposed derived from the Greek, but from the word pelandor, which in Malay means a rabbit, and which the inhabitants of Amboyna give to a species of kangaroo.

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