Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Many Happy Returns of the Day
Or, Study Etymology and Live Long

By Anatoly Liberman

Once again my source of inspiration is The Historical Magazine. In volume 9 (December 1865, pp. 373-374), an anonymous author published an article “Dr. Richardson, the English Lexicographer.” This is its beginning: “The latest English papers announce the death of Dr. Richardson, the lexicographer, at the age of ninety years. Making dictionaries appears to be a healthy business. It was only a few days ago that we announced the death of Dr. Worcester, of Boston, at the age of eighty-one. Walker was seventy-five when he died, and the late Noah Webster died at eighty-five. Though men of many words, they were men of few deeds, and lived free from those excitements which hasten death.” Webster, a man of few deeds?

Worcester, who fought heroically to drive Noah Webster out of the market and lost? (It is more or less fortuitous that Webster’s name is a household word today, for not a single line of his original dictionary can probably be found in the versions we use. We might as well have Worcester’s Collegiate Dictionary of the English Language, 11th edition.) To add insult to injury, the evil incognito continues: “We presume, although it is not so stated, that the deceased lexicographer was Charles Richardson. Another peculiarity of lexicographers appears to be that their identity is never positively established.” We are informed that Noah Webster was often confused with Daniel Webster, the senator. It hurts, it really does.

I hasten to reassure the contributor to The Historical Magazine (and may he hear my voice) that Dr. Richardson was indeed the famous lexicographer. For a moment I was uncertain, because in the splendid recent book on the history of dictionaries I happen to be reading now, the date of his death is given as 1856, but this must be a typo: 56 for 65. It is not the aloofness born of academic pursuits but the superhuman dimensions of the task that result in lexicographers’ longevity: there are so many words in every language. And an etymologist has to compare each of them with dozens of other words, old and modern. He (and of course, she) cannot afford to die young (I am sorry to say that exceptions exist: one of them is Herbert Coleridge [1830-1861], the first editor of what eventually became the OED.) Charles Richardson worked on A New Dictionary of the English Language for several decades; the 1858 edition appeared in two huge volumes and became a standard work of reference. Every entry begins with a detailed etymology—alas, a complete waste. Richardson was a dedicated follower of Horne Tooke and sought to uncover words’ “true” meaning by comparing several of them in the same language. He influenced many of his contemporaries, including another, and much more famous, Coleridge, Samuel. Tooke’s approach limited his choices but is sensible in so far as it takes into account the history of sounds. The role of phonetics in linguistic reconstruction became clear early in the eighteen-twenties and won the day half a century later; yet even by the standards of 1858 Richardson’s etymologies were hopelessly outdated. Thus he derived if from give, yet from get, think from thing, and the like. But I am glad that he lived to be ninety years old: first, because I wish everybody a long and productive life and second, because A New Dictionary… is a splendid piece of work despite the fanciful etymologies.

However much I may resent the anonymous author’s tone, I have to admit that there is a grain of truth in his statement. Walter Skeat (1835-1912) died an old man, and we must thank Providence for that. He edited Chaucer and numerous other Middle English authors, including Langland, and between those labors he edited Old English and Gothic texts. He was one of the most active students of English regional dialects. He wrote an incalculable number of articles and notes, and, above all, he is the author of our best etymological dictionary of English. Its last (fourth) edition was published in 1910, and since that time no one has ventured to produce anything like it, though etymological dictionaries continued to appear. At one time, the designated etymologist for the OED was Hensleigh Wedgwood, whose etymological dictionary also ran into four editions. Although his ideas were more sensible than Richardson’s, they, too, belong to what may be called the prescientific age of historical linguistics. However, let us note the dates of his life: 1805-1891. Then comes our hero, James A. H. Murray (1837-1915), the great first editor of the OED. What a blessing that he did not share the fate of his second-in-command Henry Bradley (1833-1894) or Robert Coleridge! And shall we forget Ernest Weekley (1865-1954), the author of a popular dictionary of English etymology, and the less learned but equally industrious Eric Partridge (1894-1879)?

Among our contemporaries two names spring to mind. One is Allen Walker Read (1906-2002). A tireless student of American English, he wrote many excellent works, but outside professional circles he is mainly remembered for his etymology of OK (an etymology that seems to have solved the problem once and for all) and the article “An Obscenity Symbol” on the history of the ignominious F-word. In 1934, when that article appeared (American Speech 9, 264-278), the word was unprintable (unimaginable!), and Read filled fourteen journal pages without mentioning it a single time. Not unexpectedly, everybody guessed what he meant. (It was common practice in the prudish 19th and in the first half of the 20th century to use Latin glosses in translating indelicate words: futuo, membrum virile, pudendum, and so forth. When I began to study etymology, I discovered, much to my delight, that the meaning of about half of the words I was investigating is reducible to “membrum virile.” I saw Read only once, at a conference, shortly before his death, but I knew Frederick Cassidy (1907-2000), another “grand old man”; of lexicography a little more closely, though, to my great regret, not intimately. He was the principal moving force and the editor-in-chief of Dictionary of American Regional English the obvious acronym is DARE). Like Murray, Cassidy did not see the last volume of his dictionary in print, but the years he spent in his office at the University of Wisconsin were sufficient to turn this work into one of the greatest achievements in the history of the American humanities. Thousands of people read DARE, which is nearing completion, for pleasure.

Do you want to live long? Forget about the advice about organic food, exercise, and moderation with which the popular press showers you. Study etymology, and if your home is in the United States, try to settle in Hawaii or Minnesota.

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.”

Recent Comments

  1. Leif Nordholm

    Hello Dr. Liberman,

    I attended your lectures at UVIC last week and one question that I reserved (after learning that you had this blog) was about the origin of Götterdämmerung. My writing teacher gave this word to my group as part of an obscure vocabulary exercise. I have read that it is the German version of Ragnarök, which our class will discuss in our study of the Edda of Snorri, but I cannot see the verbal connection. How does one get Götterdämmerung from Ragnarök?

  2. P Schoeman

    Dear Dr. Liberman,
    I have just discovered your website during my first attempt to learn more about etymology. Please explain your last paragraph regarding why study etymology and why settle in Hawaii or Minnesota? I’m interested in the study of etymology and I live in one of those states!
    Thank you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *