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An Etymologist at a Moment of Soul Searching

By Anatoly Liberman

If you have ever written a grant proposal, the form you
filled out must have had a question about your methodology.  Among the
many useless words invented to add ceremony or to the bureaucratic procedure, methodology
occupies a place of honor.  It is a synonym of method(s) but
pretends to have a deeper meaning.  Although in my capacity as a lifelong
applicant for funds I am used to grappling with “methodology,” I still have no
idea of what is expected of me (all I do is read, think, and write), but I can
say something about the principles adhered to in etymological work and will
summarize some of them for the benefit of those who keep asking: “How do you
know the origins of words?”

Etymology tries to reconstruct the past and is a game of
probabilities, because the past, unless it has been recorded in documents, is
not in a hurry to reveal its secrets.  Absolute certainty is unattainable,
but we can come close to the truth.  An etymological dictionary is
therefore not a book of fiction, as one of my uninformed colleagues has put it;
nor is it a linguistic analog of a fully reliable telephone directory.

One stone, many birds.  Some word histories are
self-contained.  Once you discover the origin of jeep or Lilliputian,
you have discovered only this, for the solutions (assuming that they have been found)
shed no light on any other English words.  But more often words form
nests.  In one of my previous posts, I discussed the origin of niggardly
and tried to show that it belongs with nudge, knock, knob, nibble,
niggle, nag,
and nod.  Likewise, tad, tid- (as in tidbit),
tod- (as in toddle), tut-tut, and, possibly, toad
make up a loose group of words having the structure t + a vowel + d/t;
they refer to small, round objects or small movements.  One etymology
covers them all.  It is desirable to identify as many members of such
extended families as possible and formulate a hypothesis explaining how each
family sprang up, rather than dealing with one word after another, as though
they were unconnected.

If possible, stay at home.  In theory,
borrowings are easy to distinguish from native words.  Dwarf is
English (and Germanic), whereas giant came to Middle English from Old
French, via Latin, from Greek.  Ghost is English (despite its
preposterous pseudo-Dutch spelling with gh); its cognate -geist
“spirit” (as in zeitgeist) is a borrowing from German.  But
hundreds of old and relatively recent words may be Dutch or English,
Scandinavian or English, borrowings from an unknown language or English, and so
forth.  It is preferable not to refer to borrowing if a fairly convincing
native etymology exists.  Engl. flatter is a near homonym of Old
French flater (the same meaning), and the idea of borrowing suggests
itself at once.  However, Middle English flattere(n) is homonymous
not only with Old French flater but also with German flatteren “flutter.”
The origin of the French verb is debatable, while in the Germanic languages
verbs beginning with fl- and designating light movement (like flit and
flutter) are plentiful.  Consequently, there is no need to classify
Engl. flatter with French borrowings.  Probably flatter (a
native formation) first meant “dance attendance on a person from whom one
expects favors,” that is, “flutter round a prospective benefactor like a
butterfly.”  Old French flater may have arisen independently of the
English verb, for fl- suggests the same type of movement to speakers of
many Indo-European languages.

A meeting of two dark bodies does not produce light.
In my experience, this is the one unfailing principle of etymological analysis.
When a word is isolated in a language, several languages, or a language group,
researchers usually succeed in discovering some look-alike whose meaning
matches that of the word under discussion.  But if the item they have
found is also of unknown origin, it should be ignored.  Engl. heifer
goes back to Old Engl. heahfore.  The meaning of heah- and -fore
is a puzzle.   A resourceful scholar once compared heahfore
with Russian koza “nanny-goat” (stress on the second syllable).
However, since the Russian word is opaque from an etymological point of view,
attempts to use it for the elucidation of heifer should be abandoned
unconditionally.  Every time researchers violate this principle, they
repent later.  Repentance may be sweet, but why sin if sinning brings no

Wit works woe.  A character (Lord George) in
Anthony Trollope’s novel The Eustace Jewels says to the
perfidious heroine (Lizzie): “If I may give you one bit of advice at parting,
it is to caution you against being clever when there is nothing to get by
it.”  His recommendation makes excellent sense in linguistics.  In
etymological works, one can find statements to the effect that straw- in
strawberry is related to frag- in Latin fragola (the same
meaning), that the protoform of clover, dwarf, and girl are klaiwsmari,
and ghwergw respectively.  These etymons are
frighteningly clever constructs, stillborn almost by definition (and there must
have been a mundane reason why people associated wild strawberries with straw: straw
seems to have been a common name for “grass”).  Clover, dwarf, and
are hard words for language historians, but they certainly did not
develop from the forms given above.

Stylistic congruity. The etymon of the word whose
origin we are investigating should ideally be searched among the words of the
same style.  According to an oft-repeated hypothesis, girl, known
only since the 13th century, goes back to OE gierela “dress,
apparel, adornment; banner.”  Yet Middle English girle was an
informal word and girles “boys and girls” (note the meaning) was
probably similar to our kids, whereas gierela appears to have
belonged to a relatively elevated register and did not designate children’s
clothes.  To the extent that the stylistic gap between Old English gierela
and Middle English girle remains “unfilled,” the former should be
rejected as the source of the latter.

Even the best methods in the world will not guarantee
success, but wrong “methodology” is sure to result in failure.  Perhaps
some aspiring etymologist will profit by the principles outlined here or at
least make use of them in writing a grant application.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. 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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