Wednesday, March 27, 2024

In the beginning was a word

Imagine a collection of short detective stories in which no case is solved. 

I was four pages into Anatoly Liberman’s discussion of the origin of the word finger — including multiple Germanic words, along with Goth, Greek, and Latin — when I reached this sentence: “It seems that we are exactly where we were at the beginning, and the impression is correct.”   

Professor Liberman, who has entertained word nerds for years with the blog OUP Etymologist, has now sifted through some eight hundred posts, selecting, revising, and updating to produce Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology (Oxford University Press, 344 pages, $29.99). 

“Origin unknown” is the signal in a dictionary that lexicographers have thrown up their hands and confessed that they cannot tell you where that word came from. Very old words were long in speech before they were ever recorded in a text, as is slang. Words change meanings and pronunciations. They alter when they encounter other languages. They are shape-shifters. 

Curiosity about word origins leads people to “fanciful and clever conjectures,” which must be sorted out. And the internet is littered with folk etymologies. (Yes, we all heard “Fornication Under Command of the King” as teenagers, but no.) Professor Liberman advises: “In semantics, no river is so broad that it cannot be crossed by an ingeniously built bridge. The bridges look safe, but one should think twice before crossing them.”

Certainty is not a ready commodity in etymology, which is why Professor Liberman describes his work in this book as an effort to “throw some light on obscurity.” 

He has an interesting conjecture on honeymoon, which Samuel Johnson defined as “the first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure,” adding a comment that the moon will wane. So we see that the early sense of the word was pejorative, bearing the sense that love will not last. Professor Liberman suggests that over time, users of the word focused on the sweetness of the honey component rather than the transitory moon, eventually arriving at the sense of harmony with which we use it. 

Honeymoon is a reminder that words can undergo amelioration and deterioration, moving from negative to positive, or positive to negative. You have to watch them. 

I took a personal interest in his entry on curmudgeon, which Johnson described as “an avaricious churlish fellow,” and the sense in Britain has remained that a curmudgeon is a miser. But in the mid-twentieth century in the United States, Webster’s Third labeled the “avaricious” sense as archaic, defining the word as “a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.” (It’s a fair cop.) The etymologist Walter W. Skeat traced the origins to the Scottish murgeon, “mock, grumble,” and mudgeon, “grimace.” 

This book is an exploratory expedition through the Englishes, Old, Middle, and Modern, and the other languages that they have— or may have — brushed up against. 


Monday, March 4, 2024

The practice of lexis can lead to tsuris

 Once you hang up the green eyeshade, nobody pays you any longer for finding fault and you have to think up other things to do. Sometimes, on afternoons before the bar opens, you go to the library, pick up a book at random, read a few pages, mutter “I’d’ve caught that,” and put it down. 

I was on my way out when my passage was blocked by a stocky librarian looking as determined as a managing editor denying an expense account filing. 

“Ma’am, I’d like to go out,” I said. 

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, I’m only thirty-five,” she said. “And if I let you out the door you’d be trapped in the middle of the demonstration.” 

“A demonstration? At the library?”

“They’re protesting Merriam-Webster.” 


"Don’t you see all the Make Grammar Great Again caps?”

“Ah, I only saw as I came in the guy with the petition to restore the default masculine.”

“Oh, him, he's been around forever. But Merriam-Webster recently posted on social media that there’s nothing wrong in English with ending a sentence with a preposition, and it’s been all hell ever since.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Demonstrations like that out front.  They petitioned us to remove all the Merriam-Webster dictionaries from the shelves and cancel the online subscription. Some people tried to take the dictionaries out of the building, and we had to tell them reference books are non-circulating. Moms for Literacy got a city councilman to threaten our funding.”

“Can I just take a look at what they’re doing?”

“All right, but you’re not going out.”

It was wild out there, like the rush for the newsroom pizzas on election night. 

Two guys in black robes were crossing back and forth with a Webster’s Second open on a gurney as if it were the Ark of the Covenant. Marchers waved placards proclaiming “UP WITH THIS WE WILL NOT PUT.” One sign said “LEXICOGRAPHY IS PORNOGRAPHY.” To one side, a knot of protesters was chanting “Not over, more than!” An older woman with a bullhorn was shouting, “Kids are goats! Kids are goats!”

I asked the librarian, “They ever violent?”

“Nah,” she said. “They did get hold of a copy of McIntyre’s Bad Advice and burned it on the front steps, but that’s as ugly as it got.” 

“How’d they get onto some obscure copy editor nerd?”

“He’s some kind of pompous ass on social media all the time, and they ferreted him out there.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just wait. I called the police.”

In a little while, for sure, a patrol car pulled up and an officer got out. He went from person to person, holding up a document, and one by one they turned and left, like the staff laid off by a hedge fund.

“What’s that he’s got?” I asked.

“Huddleston and Pullum on stranded prepositions. He tells them if they don’t go home, they have to read it. Works every time.”

I said, “I’m going to buy a lexicographer a drink,” and stepped out the door.