Genius and etymology: Henry William Fox Talbot
By Anatoly Liberman
What does it take to be a successful etymologist? Obviously, an ability to put two and two together. But all scholarly work, every deduction needs this ability. The more words and forms one knows, the greater is the chance that the result will be reasonably convincing. Without perseverance and diligence (“indefatigable assiduity”; congratulations to those who, without Googling for this phrase, will know its author) there is little hope to find out the origin of an obscure word. However, hard work, like talent, is another prerequisite of all successful research, for inspiration does not come to the indolent (this phrase is not mine either and is much harder to attribute). To put it differently, the stupid, ignorant, and the lazy needn’t apply. If we go down the list of desirable qualities, including luck and serendipity, we will see that all of them will serve an etymologist well, but none is specific. Apparently, the way of discovery is the same in all branches of knowledge.
In one respect pursuit of the best solution in etymology is different from a similar process in biology or physics. People without training in sciences become tongue-tied in the presence of specialists; by contrast, everyone believes to be able to offer an opinion about the derivation of words. When abused, the freedom of speech becomes a dangerous weapon. Outsiders do not know that for approximately two centuries historical linguists have been guided by certain rules. Etymology still presupposes a good deal of guessing, but it tries to be falsifiable, intelligent guessing. Special dictionaries, as well as etymological sections in the OED, Webster, and other reliable reference works, usually give us the information we need and satisfy the public. Tracing the tortuous ways of our predecessors is also instructive, and that is why I decided to write this post.
In 2012 Cambridge University celebrated the achievements of William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877; he is usually referred to as Henry Fox, or simply, Fox Talbot), the inventor of photography. But the subject of the conference was “Talbot beyond Photography,” because that amazing man contributed learned articles to astronomy, mathematics, botany, the decipherment of Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions, and etymology. Naturally, I can be a cautious judge of only the last-named area of his endeavors. Talbot was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College (Cambridge), and all his teachers marveled at his intelligence. In 1838-1839, he brought out at his own expense the books titled Hermes, Or Classical and Antiquarian Researches and The Antiquity of the Book of Genesis Illustrated by Some New Arguments. Dubious Greek etymologies occupy a prominent place in them. The sales, despite one good review, were unimpressive; eventually, the publisher returned the unsold copies to Talbot’s estate. Both books are rare, and very few libraries own them.
From early childhood on Talbot kept diaries. They are extant, as are his very numerous notebooks. They are kept at the British Library (London), and many researchers have studied them. Experts in art history and the history of photography are well aware of the rich literature devoted to Talbot: books (let alone articles and reports) in English, Italian, French, and German have been written about him. His legacy also interests those who study “the Victorian mind” and the development of science in the nineteenth century. Yet almost nothing has been written about his etymological work, despite the fact that in 1847 Talbot published, again out of pocket, a thick book (one page short of 500), this time called simply English Etymologies, which contained over a thousand entries, most of them short, but some “approaching,” as he said, “to the size of an essay.” The word English in the title should be understood broadly, for many words Talbot discussed are Greek and Latin.
In 1786 Sir William Jones gave a famous talk in which he stated that the affinities among Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Gothic could not be due to chance, and postulated the existence of a protolanguage we now call Indo-European (for a long time the usual term was Aryan, but the Nazis made it unpronounceable). He was not the first to arrive at such a conclusion, but it was he whose reconstruction made an impression on the scholarly world. Although Sir William was an Englishman, Indo-European studies struck root first in Denmark (Rasmus Rask) and then in Germany (Jacob Grimm and those who came after him). England had to wait until the late seventies for Henry Sweet and Walter W. Skeat to inaugurate truly modern English comparative linguistics and to catch up with German philological scholarship. In the United States, their peer was William Dwight Whitney.
Talbot’s book is a curiosity. It is a prime example of an extremely gifted amateur believing that one can do etymology without adhering to a strict method. Talbot’s notebooks show how carefully he studied languages. He learned Greek at Cambridge and won the most prestigious prize for his performance. His Latin was excellent. He was well versed in Hebrew. Gothic, Old English, German, Danish, Spanish, French, and Hindustani were among the languages he mastered. Some of them he knew well, because he spent long periods of time on the Continent. But he believed that in order to propose an etymology, it was enough to compare various words, without paying attention to sound correspondences or the history of every word in detail. Noah Webster made the same mistake. Our great dictionaries had not yet been written, but Jacob Grimm was in the same situation as Talbot; yet he never allowed his rich imagination to play tricks like those that ruined Talbot’s experiment. Talbot visualized the most ancient stage of our languages as a plateau on which the ancestors of Greek, Latin, Gothic, Icelandic, and the rest were neighbors; therefore, he allowed Homer to translate a word from Gothic and the Romans to borrow from German. Latin aera “era” was, in his opinion, a variation of English year (or Gothic jer, or German Jahr). He advanced learned and ingenious arguments to boost his idea, but the fact remains that the two words have nothing to do with each other.
Homer, Varro, Isidore, and other authors are quoted on almost every page of the book, along with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scholars. Talbot derived bran from brown bread, because this derivation made excellent sense. One feels sorry for a fertile mind being wasted on useless hypotheses, some of which Talbot defended with great vigor. He had to defend them, because one of the two reviews of English Etymologies was virulently critical. Unfortunately, neither his supporters nor his attacker saw the real weakness of the book. Students of Talbot are apt to admire the great man (and he deserves their admiration), but specialists “beyond photography” are unimpressed. At best, they accord his publications faint praise. When one deals with a man so dedicated and so brilliant, one is naturally tempted to praise rather than bury him. But in the area of linguistics, his experience shows that etymology, however inexact, is not a collection of entertaining, even if “thought provoking,” fairy tales. It cannot be practiced by dilettantes. The world should allow experts to say silly things and indulge in nonsensical speculation. At the very least such attempts can be refuted rather than ridiculed.
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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.
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Image credit: William Henry Fox Talbot. Daguerrotype by Antoine Claudet, 1844. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.