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. 



  1. “a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.” (It’s a fair cop.) I feel – as the kids say – so seen.

  2. OUP using the spelling unraveling is tantamount to treason.

  3. The title of the book seems to be "Origin Uncertain," not "Origin Unknown." At least in America. Perhaps the British edition is different.

  4. Mr Hershberger is correct, and I have gratefully made the correction.

  5. " and the sense in Britain has remained that a curmudgeon is a miser"; well, that contradicts every use of the word I have ever heard, and I'm British; in my experience the meaning over here is the same as over there.

    1. Current British dictionaries (Oxford, Cambridge, Chambers, Collins, Macmillan) all agree with Graham that "curmudgeon" means the same in the UK as in the US, and that's not new, it's been in previous editions since at least the 1990s. Even the historical OED, though it hasn't done a full revision of the word, has added "In later use more usually: a gruff, irritable, or cantankerous (esp. elderly) man" to the online definition. Liberman just didn't check. Apparently he was looking only at old dictionaries and didn't bother with any recent ones, or ask any British English speakers. I'm afraid this is typical of Liberman; he talks himself up a lot, but he's often sloppy like this. You can't rely on him in areas outside his expertise, and that includes British-American differences.