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ARTICLES An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology Anatoly Liberman A he obvious purpose of an etymological dictionary is to disclose the origin and history of words. Early etymologists did not have to justify their efforts, because they addressed a readership that was grateful for any information. For centuries etymology meant guesswork , and every new dictionary contained numerous conjectures. Later it became customary to summarize other scholars' guesses, all of which were supposed to have equal value. Some authors had a mission, namely, to prove that all words of English (in my discussion, I will concentrate only on English) derive from Hebrew or Greek, or Gaelic, or Dutch, or a noun meaning "earth." Several such dictionaries bear visible traces of insanity. A scholar might set out to cure the faults of his predecessors. Thus Charnock (1889) states that "modern works on etymology" omit many important words, dismiss many others as being of uncertain origin, offer idle, absurd, or specious etymologies, do not give proper explanations, ignore onomatopoeia, "boycott all etymologies which are not consistent with euphonic change, ignore words shown to have been formed by growth [prefix, infix, suffix], decay [aphœresis, syncope, apocope], and inversion," and deal ineptly with words derived from proper names. In his book, Charnock (a reputable scholar) hoped to provide remedies for these multifarious ills. But the appearance of Skeat's fourth edition and of the OED made attempts like Charnock's uninteresting, even ludicrous. It is instructive to observe what motivation the later authors of English etymological dictionaries had. Weekley (1921), although an immensely erudite and original thinker, looked upon himself as primarily a popularizo- and wrote an etymological dictionary that was, in his opinion, more complete than Skeat's and more comprehensible Anatoly Liberman to the public. Shipley (1945, VII) informs us that some of the byproducts of his work are an insight into man's growth, "a fresh color and vividness of language," and a quickened understanding of English words. "The present dictionary," he says, "opens such a vista." Those familiar with the product entertain no illusions about its byproducts and the vistas it opens. Partridge avoids the issue but claims to have treated all important words much more thoroughly than his predecessors. Whatever the phrase "important words" means, Partridge 's claim is groundless. Klein (1966) has been the target of such severe criticism that new invectives are hardly needed. He, not unlike Shipley, promised to give for the first time (!) "the history of human civilization and culture condensed in the etymological data of words," and he was especially proud of having fully analyzed 750 words of Semitic origin. Apparently the public did not need an expensive two-volume dictionary for the sake of 750 words, most of which are marginal to the English vocabulary. The authors of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) do not discuss its goals. We are not told to what extent the etymologies of the OED have been touched up or rewritten, or what post-1928 sources have been used. But the latest etymological dictionary of English, the Barnhart (1988), contains a clear statement of purpose . I quote some passages from this statement and appraise them briefly. It is truly an American reference work not only because it pays particular attention to the American aspect of semantic development of English words but also because it bases much of its material on points of view developed by American scholars . This is the first dictionary of etymology to be produced by an editorial staff in collaboration with American scholars from various fields of language study, (vii) Doubts arise at once. The American aspect of semantic development had not been neglected by the OED, and it plays an outstanding role in the Second Supplement. Why is it so important that the staff collaborated with American scholars? Is there a distinct American school of English etymology, or did the dictionary receive some impulses from the latest trends of American linguistics? In our etymologies we have tried to forge a closer association between the elements of dating the first recorded appearance of a word and its semantic development and its development of form, (viii) An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology The OED...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 1-29
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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