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Friday, March 18, 2005

"Every word was coined by a resourceful individual or borrowed as a result of language contact in a certain place at a certain time," writes Anatoly Lieberman in hisnew book "Word Origins and How We know Them: Etymology for Everyonw"( Oxford University Press)

It may sound simple, but etymology -- the study of word origins-- is in fact murky and tedious, if unfailingly fascinating. Lieberman's book is an examination of the process of determining how a word originated, and it shows how complex his craft can be.

"The art of etymology consists in seeing through a word's disguise". writes Liberman a professor of medieval literature and linguistics at the Unviersity of Minnesota who is laboring on a comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language.

The the word "speed". Liberman says the root of "speed" can only be determined by what linguistics call "internal reconstruction", which basically amounts to an educated guess. Liberman writes that by analyzing a family of related words including the Old English word, "spowan", the Old Slavic wrod "speti", and the Latin "spes", linguists can speculate that the root of all of these words must have been "spodi". But he puts an asterisk in his book by the word to show the existence of "spodi" is hypothetical.

"Speed" gisguised its origins by changing not only its spelling but its meaning, too. The word originally meant "prosperity", as in the phrase, "God send you good speed", but over time, "Speed" came to mean the manner in which prosperity is achieved.

The number of unexpected turns words can take is nearly infinite. Liberman explains the phenomenon of "misdivision" or an unintended combiantion of words. The word "nickname" is a misdivision of the phrase "an ekename_--in which "ekename" is Old English for "other name". The N or "an" was accidentally added to the second word, and it stuck as "nickname".

"Tawdry", Liberman says, is a misdivision of "Saint Audrey". Medieval historians wrote that Saint Audrey, queen of Northumbria in the 7th Century died of a throat tumor. They claimed this tumor was divine retribution for the fancy necklaces she liked to wear. Eventually, "tawdry" came to mean "gaudy" or "showy".

"Every decipherment presupposes that the code can be broken; in this respect, the etymologist is like a decoder", Liberman writes.

"Word Origins" also shows word lovers that English etymology means more than just knowing Latin and Greek. The number of languages that influenced English, and the complexity of the ways they did, go well beyond what Latin and Greek can teach us.

In his closing chapter, Liberman asserts that most popular books about words merely recycle examples listed by the Oxford English Dictionary--- a 20 volume set of definitions and notable citations of words throughout history.

Liberman says by e-mail that while the OED is a masterpiece, it "gives the user the results rather than tracing the paths of research. It never tries to explain how thousands of cognates have been netted and why other candidates have been rejected.

Meanwhile, many people continue to confuse the word "etymology" with "entomology" the study of insects. If nothing else, Liberman's book should at least help clear that up. But in spite of misunderstanding and outright myths (no, the word "sir loin), Liberman's book shows that while it takes specialists to make confident claims about the word origins, the rest of us can enjoy the fruits of their labor.

"Etymology, like geometry and physics, is for experts, "Liberman says by e-mail. But he adds: "My title (Etymology for Everyone") means that every person interested in language and knowing the most elementary things about it can be told how engrossing the science of etymology is and how professionals arrive at their results".

E-mail Nathan Bierman at onlanguage@gmail.com

(abstracted from CHICTRIB by: Nathan Bierma)
posted by infraternam meam @ 12:56 AM  
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Name: infraternam meam
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About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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