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Reviewed by:
  • Origin of Kibosh by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little, and: The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word by Allan Metcalf, and: On the Study of Words by Richard Chenevix Trench
  • Michael Adams (bio)
Origin of Kibosh, by Gerald Cohen, Stephen Goranson, and Matthew Little. New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. 171. Hardcover $160. ISBN: 978-1-138-62895-3. Paperback $47.95. ISBN: 978-0-367-59793-1.
The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word, by Allan Metcalf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 176. $18.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-066920-1.
On the Study of Words, by Richard Chenevix Trench. New York: Routledge, 2018 [ 1904]. Pp. 270. Hardcover $220. ISBN: 978-1-138-55593-8. Paperback $56.95. ISBN: 978-1-138-56674-3.

Nowadays, knowledge of language, as well as many other natural and social phenomena, depends on aggregation, normalization, distribution, and other "big" approaches to data. Corpora lead us to sounder conclusions about any number of linguistic questions. At the same time, we've called off our Romantic romance with words, in favor of science (Malkiel 1993, 109). Dictionaries are now works of reference rather than of imagination, though one suspects they can be both at once. Richard Chenevix Trench—Anglican clergyman, poet, and historical lexicographer, the godfather of the Oxford English Dictionary—would find such developments alarming, not because they don't constitute knowledge (of course they do), but because they distract us from other knowledge they can't replace. He opens his On the Study of Words with an observation bound to warm the hearts of philologists:

There are few who would not readily acknowledge that mainly in worthy books are preserved and hoarded the treasures of wisdom and knowledge which the world has accumulated; and [End Page 289] that chiefly by aid of these they are handed down from one generation to another. I shall urge on you in these lectures something different from this; namely, that not in books only, which all acknowledge, nor yet in connected oral discourse, but often also in words contemplated singly, there are boundless stores of moral and historic truth, and no less of passion and imagination, laid up—that from these, lessons of infinite worth may be derived, if only our attention is roused to their existence.

(Trench 2018 [1904], 1)

Who has time to contemplate words, let alone singly? Who today would agree that "many a single word also is itself a concentrated poem" (Trench 2018 [1904], 5)1 or that "language is fossil history as well" (Trench 2018 [1904], 9)? Some writers do, one supposes, but mostly it's the historical lexicographers and especially the etymologists who, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet and philosopher, have "weighed words in the balances" (Trench 2018, xi), writing dictionaries and other worthy books and articles that accumulate our cultural wisdom and knowledge across space and through time.

Etymology, once a powerful and privileged discipline, has fallen on hard times. In American universities, at least, historical English linguistics has all but disappeared from graduate school curricula, and, after all, etymologists are merely a subset of the historical linguists.2 Yakov Malkiel (1993, 105) lamented "nearly-extinct" types of etymological dictionary, concerned, too, that etymology had been "banished altogether from […] editorial offices of key journals, the planning centres for choosing the topics of meetings, and similar nerve centres of active scholarship" (1993, 135). Martha Berryman (now Martha Mayou) spoke on "Notes & Queries as a Source for a New Bibliographical Dictionary of [End Page 290] English Etymology" at the 8th Biennial Meeting of DSNA (1991), when she was working with Anatoly Liberman on his Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology (Liberman 2008 and 2010), and in that journal and elsewhere notes have long been a staple of the etymological literature. The twenty-first-century university, however, discourages graduate students and faculty from writing short articles—fame and fortune in the modern academy depend on writing longer articles and books. Works like Liberman's are rare. His Bibliography of English Etymology (2010) is monumental, but it's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 289-298
Launched on MUSE
2020-12-17
Open Access
No
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