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A Retrospective on “Origin Uncertain”

In early March, the mail brought me the expected complimentary copies of my recent book Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology, published by Oxford University Press (2024). The book is based on my contributions to this blog, and some of our readers may perhaps be interested in hearing how the events developed. The blog started on March 1, 2006, eighteen years (almost to a day) before the publication of the book. At that time, OUP inaugurated a series of blogs, and the “Oxford Etymologist” column was one of them.

Yet the story is much longer. My work on etymology began forty, rather than eighteen, years ago and grew out of the discovery that even the best dictionaries often say about the words they feature: “Origin unknown.” To be sure, the formula has several variants: “perhaps related to such and such a word” (often equally obscure), “of uncertain origin,” “origin disputable (contested),” and an array of adjectives like dubious and doubtful, but in principle, the result is always the same, that is, “unknown.”

Exploring the unknown

The first mysterious word I began to explore was heifer. Just why heifer piqued my curiosity is a special plot, not worthy of attention here. In any case, some time later, I wrote a paper about it, after which my work on other mysterious words never stopped. I am not a decorated veteran, but if I were asked about a medal I would like to receive as a sign of recognition, I would say: “Bronze, small format, with an image of a heifer rampant facing forward.” So much for my knightly aspirations.

What words, one wonders, resist language historians’ attempts to discover their origin? Surprisingly, all kinds: adz(e) and awl, bad and bamboozle, curmudgeon and Cockney, dandruff and drudge, and so on to the end of the alphabet (yeoman and zoot suit). We know neither who coined them nor what inspired the mysterious wordsmiths “to call a spade a spade.” Some such words are old, even very old, while others surfaced in the late Middle Ages, and still others emerged in our recent memory. Slang tends to be especially impenetrable.

When I was entrusted with this blog, I decided to avoid all trivial information and discuss only such words as belong to the group “origin unknown/uncertain.” Very early on, I devoted a short post to copacetic. Recently, longer essays on caucus and curfew have appeared. This does not mean that I got stuck in the letter C. The opposite is true. I have written more than 900 posts covering the entire alphabet. In some, I answered the readers’ questions and discussed their comments, but all in all, I think I have touched on the origin of at least 600 English words.

When OUP suggested that I write a book based on the blog, it also specified its size. The volume, now on the market, contains 330 pages, index and all. I had to choose the most attractive words and ended up with about seventy of them. To those I added four idioms, one place name (the mysterious Rotten Row), and three biographical essays: on the great language historian and etymologist Walter W. Skeat, the author of the English Dialect Dictionary Joseph Wright, and the little-remembered William W. John Thoms, the man who, among many other things, coined the word folklore.

How does one tackle “origin unknown?”

Here I should say something about Thoms but will have to begin from afar. If dependable sources say “origin unknown,” what was there to write in the blog and in the book? Why bother? Ay, there’s the rub. “Unknown” does not mean “beyond redemption” or “undiscussed.” Usually the opposite is true: the attempts to solve the riddle have been numerous, but the solution evades the researcher. While fighting my real, non-heraldic rampant heifer, I realized that comprehensive bibliographies of English etymology do not exist. The same is true of Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and Romance linguistics. Nor has an English etymological dictionary with even near-exhaustive references to the scholarly literature been written. Fortunately, I found a rather old paper on heifer which contained good footnotes. It became clear that if I wanted to continue work on etymology, I needed a bibliography worthy of its name. The formula “origin unknown” had to give way to a full-fledged discussion of the state of the art.

‘Book of Snobs VI – Page 26’ (1848), Oxford University, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It took a host of volunteers and a few undergraduate assistants about twenty years to look through thousands of pages of popular periodicals like The British Apollo, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and The Nation in search of statements on word origins, while I screened the scholarly journals in about every European language for several centuries. The bibliography (a huge volume) was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2009. (I have taught at the University of Minnesota since 1975.) Countless invaluable letters to the editor appeared in the British weekly Notes and Queries, conceived and edited for many years by Thoms. Hundreds of them dealt with word origins. English linguistics owes a huge debt of gratitude to that periodical, which, incidentally, spawned a whole gallery of offspring, including American Notes and Queries. Hence Thoms’s fully justified appearance next to Skeat and Wright.

All the words featured in my book are among the most problematic ones in English etymology. Here are some of them: awning (and tarpaulin), ajar, akimbo, bizarre, dildo, bicker, galoot, snob, dandy, henchman, bigot, haberdasher, shenanigans, Hoosier, and the much-vilified ain’t. For the fun of it, three relevant images have been selected to illustrate this post. In my work on the blog and the book, I depended on the comprehensive bibliography described above. Whether it was bizarre or Hoosier, I had at my disposal practically everything ever said about the history of those words in any source or language, and it was sometimes in the darkest nooks that I would run into a clever suggestion, overlooked by my predecessors. This is what happened in the essay on conundrum, to cite the most spectacular case. Samuel Johnson’s definition of a lexicographer as a harmless drudge has been quoted to death. Alas, it also holds for an etymologist. To reach the ever-hidden shining heights, a word-hunter should tread patiently through a quagmire and a desert.

‘Giuseppe Maria Mitelli – Standing Peasant with Arms Akimbo’ by Art Institute of Chicago, via Picryl.

From blog to book

Turning even seventy disparate essays into a cohesive unity turned out to be a difficult task. Sometimes I had to rewrite the post from scratch. In other cases, it was necessary to edit the text, remove repetitions, and add cross-references, because the chatty style of a standalone post and the flowing style of a book, however “popular,” are different matters. It is not always easy to steer between Scylla and Charybdis.

As could be expected, in my travels through the vocabulary, I did not solve all or most of the problems that had baffled my predecessors for decades, if not for centuries. But in all cases, I tried to present a full picture, reject groundless hypotheses, and choose what seemed to me the most promising solution, while making the story accessible to “everyone.” In a few cases, I think I could even suggest a promising way out of the impasse. Yet in the text, few references to scholarly sources appear. Those who will choose to pick up where I have left off will open my bibliography, familiarize themselves with the history of the question, and decide whether they can do better. In some cases, they will probably reject my solutions, as I have rejected numerous hypotheses of my predecessors. This is perfectly fine.

‘The Haberdasher Dandy, Charles Williams, England’ by Art Institute of Chicago via Picryl.

The readers of the book will of course notice how often I suggest an “expressive” (that is, soundimitative or sound -symbolic) origin of the most intractable words. Language must have been expressive in the remotest past, and it still is, even though we have learned to pronounce and understand words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and psychoanalysis. To return to my main point. Few people realize who difficult it is to write a “popular” book, without watering down the relevant facts and arguments. The uninitiated reader should be able to open the book by chance, feel intrigued, drawn to the page, and go on reading. Origin Uncertain was conceived not as etymology for dummies but as a detective story, a thriller. Let me quote the last sentences of the introduction: “Studying word origins is like participating in an eternal carnival. Masks beckon to you, tease, give a kiss, or bamboozle by unrealistic promises. All is about snipp, snapp, snorrum, an incantation Hans Christian Andersen liked, or, to use Hemingway’s phrase, a moveable feast.”

Feature Image: Book Labyrinth at the Last Bookstore, CC3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Maggie Catambay

    Congratulations, Prof. Liberman, on the publication of your latest book, Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology!

    I appreciate your blogs, especially the about mysterious origins.
    Keep up the good work!


  2. Huijun Suo

    My best regard! In quite a few cases your blog helped me in my etymological musings. My book, scheduled for this or next year, is mainly intended for the Chinese community, and draws a lot upon bilingual comparisons. I find Chinese and English very comparable in etymology. To tell the truth, Chinese has given me very good ideas for unravelling several millennium-old etymological riddles in English.

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