Can you trust your (etymological) dictionary?

By Anatoly Liberman

When the title of a scientific article contains a general question (i.e. a question beginning with a verb), the author’s answer is almost always “no” “Will people ever speak one language ? (No, they won’t). “Can pidgins tell us anything about the beginning of human speech?” (No they can’t). But don’t expect thrills from this post. Can you trust the etymologies provided by your dictionary? Yes you can, but not unconditionally.

Most of the information we find in dictionaries is the result of consensus. What is the meaning of the name moon? “A planet, a satellite of the earth.” And what for moon? “To show signs of infatuation.” Nothing else? “Spending time in idle reverie.” Is that all? Not quite: also “to expose his bare buttocks”. How do we know these meanings? By experience: English speakers have agreed to assign them to this object and to these actions. Is there a surname Moon? Sure. It can be found in any directory. The pronunciation of the word moon is another observable fact. But the origin of moon must be recovered, and a plebiscite is not part of the procedure. In the same way, it doesn’t matter how many people believe that the moon is made of green cheese. Even if everyone is positive on this point, the conclusion will be wrong.

Language reconstruction is never one hundred percent certain. In a typical etymological thriller, the main witnesses are long dead or refuse to speak. Historical linguists are condemned to play the game of probabilities and often settle for the least improbable solution rather than the most probable. The authors of the etymologies are underprivileged detectives, not clairvoyants. The public stays away from lexicographic cuisine and blindly trusts dictionaries. This is a great thing, because despite the fashionable opinion that all knowledge is relative and there is no reality (everything is supposedly constructed and depends on the point of view of the observer), we aspire to the absolute. Rational human beings, when doubting a word, do not indulge in the moon (daydreaming); they look it up in a dictionary. Oh, yes, of course: a modern dictionary should be descriptive, not prescriptive. You, like, say regardless, and that is your right, but good dictionaries (even if they appreciate your feelings, feel your pain and are full of sympathy-empathy) should, for example, kindly advise you against such use, and, as a general rule, they’re doing it. However, when it comes to etymology, the best lexicographer can only say what is supposed to be right or express an informed opinion, and it is instructive to watch the evolution of these opinions.

Those who read this blog with any regularity must have noticed how often my discussion resolves to list conjectures and try to say something beyond “unknown origin”. Explanatory English dictionaries never, and specialized etymological dictionaries almost never, present a complete picture of the debate surrounding the origins of words. This is explained by the lack of space, the natural desire of publishers to avoid technical details which frighten the uninitiated (because etymology is as technical as chemistry, but dictionaries are published to be sold), the lack of a database of everything scholars have written about the origin of English words, and the fear of starting a full dictionary and never finishing it. It is irritating that we often have contradictory reports even about the origin of words created in recent memory; consider the history of Jeep, problem, and most slang. Old words present more serious problems. The list I have is bewilderingly long, but two examples of what may be called etymological games will probably suffice.

Boy. In Old English, the proper name boia was recorded, but its connection with boy remains a subject of debate. Boy did not appear in English texts until the 13th century and at that time it meant “minor servant”. The meaning “male child” appeared (or developed) later. Since boy dates back to Middle English, it could be a loanword from French. However, despite the lack of clarity, most etymologists believed (note: believed) that the English word had a Germanic origin. The only dissenting voice (we are in the year 1900 with it) made no impression on the dictionary makers. But in 1940 a distinguished scholar, unaware of the work of his predecessor, again suggested that boy pursues a French etymon. I deliberately skip all forms and names, as it is only the lexicographical practice that interests me here. The 1940 publication was hailed as a great discovery and some of our most reputable dictionaries changed course. The Concise Oxford Dictionary is one of the best products of twentieth-century lexicography. The authors thought this boy was Germanic, but the dictionary has been revised and updated several times. The 5th edition specifies that the origin of boy, “subject of complicated conjectures”, has not yet been discovered. The two following editions cite a French source. In the meantime, strong objections were raised against the 1940 article. As a result, the 8th and 9th editions reproduced the wording of the 6th and 7th with a question mark. The 10th edition indicates “unknown origin”. Public transport… (Sorry for the unbearable cliche.)

Girl. Here is another Middle English word, and its origin has also been the subject of “complicated conjecture”. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The words for “child, boy, girl” often refer to metaphors and metonymies that are difficult to trace. The equations “child” = “twig, branch, branch” are particularly common; stump, piece of wood. In Greek, Latin, Germanic, Romance, Celtic, and Slavic, etymologists face similar problems when it comes to naming children. Attempt to discover the etymology of girl and boy were similar in many ways. Regarding girlonly one thing is indisputable: -I is a diminutive suffix, so that girl is a little girl, no matter gir means. The root girl- is not isolated in Germanic, and it rivals gor- and gur-both being the basis of the names of young creatures. Girl seems to have been borrowed from lower (i.e. northern) German. But as early as 1855 it was suggested that girl carry on old english girl “dress up”, a word that has surfaced in many forms. Such a metonymy would not be unusual, since the words for “girl” and “woman” often derive from the names of clothes (compare it runs after every skirt). the girl/girl the etymology had little course, even if it was not forgotten. It was given a second life in a 1967 article by a prominent American scholar (who – a familiar story – didn’t realize he had rediscovered an ancient but usable wheel). The second edition of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (mark it, a wonderful dictionary) incorporated it, and The Barnhart Dictionary of English Etymology treated him with respect. In contrast, the many modern offshoots of WD cover up a little but prefer the traditional point of view (they say “probably related to the Low German form”). I think, if my opinion interests you, that boy is Germanic and girl was a loanword from German.

Two examples, as I said, will suffice. The situation is still the same. Dictionaries reproduce a certain view that is supposed to be safe. Then an iconoclast proposes another hypothesis. Some publishers ignore it, while others jump on the bandwagon. Etymology is like medicine in that its prescriptions (recommendations) do not reflect the truth but the state of the art. Should you trust your doctor? Indeed, you should. And so it is with your etymologist. May a clinic and a dictionary live long and be accessible to all, even if neither guarantees survival.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them and An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on the origins of words, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here every Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he will do his best to avoid replying with “unknown origin”.

Comments are closed.