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Monthly Gleanings: February 2010


By Anatoly Liberman

Neologists, thesauruses, and etymology. A month ago, one of our correspondents asked what we call people who coin new words. I suggested that such wordsmiths or wordmen may be called neologists. My spellchecker did not like this idea and offered geologist or enologist for neologist, but I did not listen to its advice. Geologists study rocks, and (o)enologists are experts in wine making. Mountains and alcohol are for the young; I have enough trouble keeping my identity among entomologists (the motif of an insect will turn up again at the end of this post). Soon after my answer was posted, a letter came from Marc Alexander, a colleague teaching in Glasgow. He was a member of the team that produced the great Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (this is only part of the title) that Oxford University Press brought out in 2009. He kindly looked up the relevant category in the thesaurus and found the following: logodaedalus (current between 1641 and 1690), logodaedalist (it lived in books between 1721-1806), neologist (which surfaced in 1785 and is still alive), neoterist, and verbarian, coined in 1785 and 1873 respectively, all in all a nice gallery of stillborn freaks. Mr. Alexander adds: “Based on OED citations, neologist is, I think, exclusively one who uses rather one who coins [new words].”

I would like to profit by this opportunity and thank all our readers who comment on my posts (I wish there were more of them) and in addition say something about the role of thesauruses for etymology. When the first volumes of the OED, at that time called NED (New English Dictionary) reached the public, two attitudes clashed, and the polemic was carried out with the acerbity typical of such exchanges in the 18th and the 19th century. (Those who have never read newspapers and popular and semi-popular magazines published in Addison’s days and much later have no idea how virulent their style often was. Both James A.H. Murray and Walter W. Skeat represented the trend in an exemplary way and never missed the chance of calling their opponents benighted, ludicrously uninformed, and unworthy of even the shortest rejoinder; then a long diatribe would usually follow.) Some people praised Murray for including all the words that occurred in printed sources, while others objected to filling the pages of the great national dictionary with obstructive rubbish: they would never have allowed logodaedalist and its likes to mar the pages of a serious reference book. No convincing arguments for or against either position exist. The public will not notice the presence of logodaedalist or use this preposterous word, but those who are interested in the sources of human creativity, for whom language history is not only a list of survivors (be it sounds, forms, syntactic constructions, or words) but a chronicle of battles won and lost will be perennially grateful to the OED for documenting even the words that lived briefly. Such words show how English-speakers have tried to master their language for more than a millennium, and the picture is inspiring from beginning to end.

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary… (two handsome volumes) is a great book, a monumental achievement, a truly bright feather in OUP’s cap. It will serve as an inestimable tool in etymological work. When we ask the often unanswerable question about the connection between what seems to be an arbitrary group of sounds (“sign”) and meaning, sometimes our only guide or supporting evidence is analogy. I will use a typical example from my work. The origin of basket (from Celtic?) is debatable (many authorities call it unknown), but it is not the answer to the puzzle that interests me here. Once I learn everything I can about the history of basket, I’ll look up BASKET in the thesaurus appended to my Bibliography of English Etymology. There I will find the following: bass, bassinet, booget, cauf, corb, corbel, cowel, creel, cresset, flasket, frail, gaberlunzie, hopper, junket, kiddle, kipe, kit, lope, maund, pannier, skep, skepple, skippet, teanel, tindal, and wicker. Most of those words are dialectal (regional). They have caught my attention because the origin of each of them is discussed at least once in the literature I have read. My hope is that after looking at the ideas on the origin of so many names invented for “a container of wickerwork with a handle,” I’ll be able to say something reasonable about basket. Is it necessary for a basket to be of wickerwork and have a handle? How often are words meaning “basket” borrowed? Maund and skep are said to be of Celtic descent. Was there anything in baskets used by the Celtics that made them especially attractive to English-speakers? Why is a diminutive suffix, supposedly present in basket, so common in the names listed above? Were many baskets usually small and devised for carrying babies? Now etymologists have a historical version of Roget, supplied with detailed indexes. Thesauruses can be turned to multifarious uses, but let me repeat: the value of this thesaurus for etymological research cannot be overestimated.

Separate words
Specially versus especially. Especial and especially were borrowed into Middle English from Old French. Over the centuries, many words have lost their prefixes (Murray called curtailed forms aphetic), and the loss produced near doublets and near synonyms of the special(ly) ~ especial(ly) type. Sometimes the etymological connection between them is obvious, as in special/especial and squire/esquire, but occasionally it requires an effort to discover. Thus, fend (as in fend for oneself) and mend are aphetic variants of defend and amend, which makes sense (for example, an amended return is a mended return), but it comes as a surprise that fence (the art of fencing, “deal in stolen goods,” and “a hedge”) is aphetic of defence. So much for mending one’s fences. Native prefixes, that is, such as were not borrowed from French or Latin, can also be lost: for example, lone is an aphetic variant of alone. In present day English, especially means “to an exceptional degree” (“it is especially irritating that…”) and “in particular,” while specially has the force of “on purpose, expressly” (“I came here specially to visit an old friend; he needs my help especially now that he is recovering after a long illness”).

Buzzword. In my previous set of gleanings I appealed to our readers to give their ideas on the origin of the compound buzzword. Not that I believe in plebiscite as a method of etymological inquiry, but since in term of language history buzzword is a relatively recent coinage, our contemporaries’ opinions may shed light on its rise. So far I have received only one letter, which I quote: “Buzz is the sound bees make. There are also expressions such as feeling the buzz or hearing the latest buzz, which appear to relate to an increased level of energy or interest. The image I have is the buzz one hears when bees swarm to establish a new hive. It goes away quickly once the hive is settled. This, a buzzword is one that creates a lot of noise and energy, one we swarm for a short time, and then it fades just as quickly as it emerged.” A metaphor drawn from bees, as Mr. Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest said about hanging upon one’s lips.

Pike “to eavesdrop.” See Stephen Goranson’s comment, also on the previous gleanings, posted on January 27, this year. He tentatively suggests an origin from a last name.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Eric

    That’s ‘Dr. Chasuble’ to you!

  2. Walter Turner

    I was the one who originally asked about piking, meaning eavesdropping on a telephone party line.
    My informant, who is from southern Illinois, assures me he was familiar with the word in the 1940’s, when it was the ususal expression of his parents’ generation. Otis Pike was in Congress much later.

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