Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A project in a nutshell

The richer the soil, the more luxuriant the flowers. My soil is the database to which Ireferred last week. Spelling can be regulated, pronunciation can be observed, and meaning is the result ofconsensus (earth, sky, wolf, lamb, and so forth mean what we agree they should mean), but the origin of words has to be reconstructed.

Some steps in the history of words are easier to retrace than others. Thus we know for sure that hypocrisy reached English from Classical Greek via Latin and French. The Greek word meant feigning” and was a compound: hupo- meant “under,” and the second element can be glossed as “pretence.” The real work is explaining the origin of the Greek elements, but an English etymologist may well delegate that task to a Classical scholar.

Numerous words have cognates in the entire Indo-European family. For example, Engl. one, two, three, are not borrowings from any language: they have existed “forever,” even though millennia ago they sounded different. A non-specialist will find it amusing to learn that countless suggestions have been put forward to explain how the Indo-Europeans came by their numerals and that despite all the efforts no definitive answer exits. Why one, two, three? Dictionaries are silent on this subject.

>Other words have narrower distribution among languages (only in English, German, and Scandinavian, for example). Their exact origin often remains unknown, for reconstruction is seldom 100% certain. Since antiquity people have been trying to penetrate the obscurity in which the history of words is shrouded and the most interesting part of etymology is not necessarily the answer but the attempts to arrive at it. Shouldn’t an etymological dictionary offer us an overview of at least some reasonable approaches to the riddle rather than shove the safest solution down our throats? Everybody agrees that it should, but no one has written such a dictionary for English.

Twenty years ago, I decided to fill this gap and began collecting everything that has been printed on the derivation of English words.  People from all walks of life have worked for the project, half of them volunteers. When I asked them why they decided to offer their services, they invariably answered: “Because I love words.” Some would add that they hated their jobs and that studying languages had been their dream for years.I sent them to the University library where they looked through thousands of volumes in search of articles, notes, and reviews dealing with the history of English words. This is when Notes and Queries, Athenaeum, Chambers’ Magazine, and many, many others became part of my life. Huge boxes that I could not lift and barely legible microfilms kept coming to us through Interlibrary Loan.

Nobody can read everything, but what stands in my office and is stored in my computer is enough for writing the dictionary I began planning two decades ago.  And now I am coming to the soil and flowers image that opens this post. Whatever English word occurred in our reading was marked, defined, and entered into the computer. We are all aware of the enormity of the vocabulary of English, but one has to look through my database to realize how remarkably limited native speakers’ knowledge of their language is.

When investigating the history of words, a good deal depends on analogy.  For example, I think that the verb chide at one time meant “brandish sticks.”  (In this context, it matters little how I arrived at such a strange conclusion.) To make my hypothesis persuasive, I began to study the etymology of other words meaning “rebuke, reprove; scold,” in the hope that such development (from exchanging blows to a verbal attack) was not uncommon.  Although similar examples cannot prove that a certain reconstruction is correct, they can make it plausible.  I found what I was looking for and decided that the etymology I offered for chide was acceptable.   It also occurred to me that a thesaurus of the words featured in the database (and there are close to 20,000 of them) would be useful.  This thesaurus is now ready, and what I find in it teaches me great humility.

The origin of the word basket is unknown, so why not read what has been said about its synonyms?  These are the words defined as “basket” in the database (some of them also mean “wallet, pouch”): basket, bass, bassinet, booget, cauf, corb, corbel, cowel, creel, cresset, flasket, frail, gaberlunzie, hopper, junket, kiddle, kipe, kit, lope, maund, skep, skepple, skippet, teanel, tindal, and wicker. 

Most illuminating. 

Better luck under “dishonesty”? (Don’t forget that we began with hypocrisy). – Bam, bamboozle, barratry, bawker, bilk, bleu, braid, bull, callifugle, cheat, chiaus, chicane, chisel ~ chizzle, chouse, clip, coath, cod, colt, cozen, crack, crib, dupe, dwell, fefnicute, fib, flam, flummery, fob, fodger, fog, fub, gammon, gazoozle, geck, gonk, guggle, gull, hide, hoodwink, jilt, jolly, kid, lie, ligger, malinger, mump, perjury, sharper, shill, smuggle, speeler, steal, stuff, sucker, swindle, trick, welch, whicker, yed.

Apparently, turpitude has many faces.  Fefnicutes, if you are interested, are smart (cute?) kids who cajole their mothers into giving them sweetmeats; they live in the north of England. 

I did not cull these words from Roget or some other synonym finder: their origin has been discussed at least once in the literature collected over the years.  This is the soil.  The garden will bloom in the pages of the dictionary to be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2007. Two volumes.  If you want to enrich your vocabulary, you will need a good, sturdy gaberlunzie or maund to take it home.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Nutshell, Nuts’, Photo by Die_Sonja, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Rich

    Please, please, PLEASE make sure you have backups — probably more than one, and offsite. It would be devastating to lose such work to a faulty hard drive platter.

  2. Mike

    Fascinating. I just finished listening to a Teaching Company lecture about the origins of the English language, and now, coming across this post encourages me to learn more.
    There is a story behind every word.

    BTW: University of Minnesota Press you say? Is that allowed? What does it say at the top of this page? Haha.

Comments are closed.