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Etymology as a profession

By Anatoly Liberman

Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.

Etymology purports to explain why the words we use have the meanings familiar to us. Why is a tree called “tree,” why do we say man, winter, nine, and so forth? People have always been interested in the origin of things. Numerous myths explain how the world was created, how the first people came into being, why it rains, and why winds blow. There is no myth about the origin of the faculty of speech. We don’t know how human language originated. It is not even quite clear what we are looking for. How complicated should signals be to deserve the name of language? Are we looking for intelligible primordial cries or a well-formed vocabulary, or coherent syntax? The wide use of the term language (compare the language of art, of music, and the like) makes the search even more complicated. We constantly hear about some bright chimpanzees mastering language at the level of a two-year-old child, about the language of bees, dolphins, and others. This is all very interesting but not particularly helpful.

Numerous attempts have been made to obtain the answer about the origin of language from a study of the languages of “primitive peoples.” Alas, the level of material culture proves no clue to the level of the speakers’ language sophistication. The concept of primitive people has been compromised for all times, and, when it comes to the Indo-European languages, the more ancient a language is, the more complex its structure turns out to be. A language of primordial cries has not been found. The chasm between the first words of humanity and the words at the disposal of modern linguists is impossible to bridge. Our records span only a few millennia, and there is no certainty that any of the truly ancient words are still current today. The Semitic languages developed more slowly than the languages of the Indo-European family, but even with Aramaic and Hebrew we are incalculable centuries away from the beginning.

Consequently, we are better qualified to discover the origin of the words of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, English, and other “extant” languages than the origin of the elusive first words. But even this task is often unattainable. Some words are among the oldest known, and we have no idea how long they had existed before they surfaced in written records. They are simply signs to us. One of such words is the numeral one. In all the Indo-European languages its cognates mean the same, and at some early time it probably sounded as oinoz. The form is unrevealing. Did it refer to the thumb or the little finger, or some single object? We feel more comfortable when it comes to derivatives. Thimble is related to thumb, and we only have to find out whether thimbles were ever worn on the thumb. We also notice that the German for thumb is Daumen and wonder why the English word has b at the end. Such questions can usually be answered quite well. It follows that an etymologist has to be informed about the properties of the things whose names are being discussed. Sometimes the answer is almost on the surface, but more often it is not. For example, German einladen means “to invite,” while laden means “to load.” What does loading have to do with invitation? This is a fairly complicated problem. The trouble with one is typical. Scholars collected all the forms related to it. The search presupposed the existence of certain nontrivial rules. They asked how people counted at the dawn of civilization and, to do this, traveled all over the world. The result is a mass of conflicting hypotheses, and a method is needed to decide which of them are especially promising. Hundreds of pages have been written about the origin of numerals.

The only junk worth admiring.
The only junk worth admiring.

Other words are late. They too are the product of human creativity, but, even while dealing with recent coinages, we often fail to discover their sources. It may amuse non-specialists to see how many people have tried to find the origin of jazz and how uncertain even the best results are. Bigot (the subject of a recent post), like jazz, must also have arisen as a slang word. The circumstances in which a certain word comes into being may be so inconspicuous that we have little chance of discovering them. For a long time I have been planning to write a series of short essays on the words jink “to dodge a blow,” high jinks, I’ll be jiggered, and jingo, and their possible connections with jiggle (jink looks like a nasalized version of jiggle, and by jingo! is as emotional as high jinks). Unfortunately, too little is known about their history. Does junk belong with them? Is junk something that is avoided, “jinked”? Compare the vowel alternation in sink ~ sunk and drink ~ drunk. One should tread gingerly, that is, gently on this marshy ground. In a British journal for 1928, I read: “The taxi-drivers of London have announced that they are going to call the new two-seaters jixis, after the licencing House Secretary, Sir Williams Joynson-Hickes.” I am glad I know it. Otherwise, I may have proposed a profound theory of jixi being related to the jink words. In fact, it is a blend of Joynson and taxi (still not jaxi!).

So what are the qualifications of an etymologist? There is a thin layer of late words like jixi that requires no expertise in linguistics. Quite naturally, journalists prefer to write mainly about them, though the history of slang is often irritatingly opaque (capricious coinages, borrowings, and so forth). Work with the other words presupposes familiarity with historical phonetics, historical grammar, and historical semantics. If a language has a long written record, the specialist should be able to read old texts. Comparison is the backbone of linguistic reconstruction. Therefore, an etymologist is expected to have at least a passive knowledge of related and unrelated languages. Since words are the names of things, it is important to feel at home among both things and words. One may ask whether there are or have been people who met the requirements mentioned above. Yes, and rather many. Thanks to them we have an array of excellent etymological dictionaries. To the extent that a complicated etymology is a reward for weighing probabilities, it is seldom final and, by definition, can be superseded by a better one. But the assertion that nothing is final in this area of knowledge misses the mark. It is the end that tends to elude us, for a hunter cannot always be successful.

Occasionally I am asked whether there are job opportunities for etymologists. Paid jobs for experts in word history are few, though great dictionaries usually need editors who revise the etymological part of the entries. The OED has a group of professional etymologists, but this case is exceptional. Even university courses in etymology are rare, because historical linguistics has fallen into desuetude on our campuses. However, the public has a healthy interest in word origins, and books on etymology find a good market. Blogs dealing with etymology have a wide readership, and a stream of questions sent to bloggers never dries up. As long as people exist, they will want to know where words come from, and the world will need specialists who are able to satisfy their curiosity. However, a student aspiring to be an etymologist should remember that etymology is a respectable but not a lucrative occupation. Pre-etym is not quite the same thing as pre-med and pre-law.

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 [email protected]; 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: A Chinese junk depicted in Travels in China. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    It seems clear that Joynson-Hicks was popularly called Jix, and Jix + taxi > jixi quite naturally, thus accounting for the vocalism.

  2. John Larsson

    Thank you for this post professor! In my opinion an etymologist is no less than an artist! Surely a bit nerdish, but many artists are!;-)

    “One of such words is the numeral one. In all the Indo-European languages its cognates mean the same, and at some early time it probably sounded as oinoz. The form is unrevealing. Did it refer to the thumb or the little finger, or some single object?”

    This I find questionable. I find it illogical that the lowest numeral (one) is a physical part of the numeral “five” (hand). To me there is more sense in looking at the lowest numerals as a kind adjectives or pronouns. For “one” the meaning could have been “I”, “me” or e. g. “head”. “Two” could have meant the plurals “hands”, “arms”, “legs”, “feet”, “eyes” or “ears”.

    One has performed ingenious test of how high numbers animals (crows) can grasp. The average is about 3. The funny thing is that man only performs 1-2 better tested in the same way (no time for “counting” allowed, pure “grasping” at a glance!). Thus the time from understanding “one” to being able to work with “five” can have been longer than the time line for mammals!

  3. Gavin Wraith

    “When it comes to Indo-European languages, the more ancient a language is, the more complex its structure turns out to be” .. until the Anatolian languages displaced Sanskrit as the oldest we knew about. The sentiment you quote I can remember being stated when I was at school, 60 years ago, but my impression is that Hittite is a lot less complicated than Sanskrit or Greek. If you just take a quick count of how many endings the conjugation of a verb can have, then Hittite is less complex than Latin.

  4. […] ~ taxi. I received two responses to my note on the “jixy,” named after Joynson-Hickes. It was London cabmen who coined the word, and yes, the politician was […]

  5. Shahid K-M


    All languages are related. There isn’t any language isolate.

    Thank you

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