Friday, August 10, 2012

word origins


I love etymology, but I'm not too sure that extends to Word Origins* by Anatoly Liberman. Now, a quickie peruse roun' the internet tells me that Anatoly Liberman is not, as I suspected, an English dude, but!, ah the plot thickens my dears, he is, in fact, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia. Okay, okay, I thought I was going crazy there for a bit, because I had the distinct impression that Liberman is an English language fan-boy, big time, but he wasn't speaking American English. His name, and maybe the Oxford Press made me think 'British', but this guys lives and teaches in Minnesota.

Here's a little taste:

"A search for words somehow connected with the word whose origin was being investigated lost its character of a ramble among look-alikes, and a surprising realization came that look-alikes are deceptive"

'Of a ramble,' brother?

Word Origins is a love letter to the English language from a life-long enthusiast. Liberman is quietly amusing and entertaining throughout while he carefully traipses over some rather boring etymological ground, namely; how etymology is done correctly--and how it isn't.

Word Origins traces the history of etymology through the ages, touching on the major advancements -- and setbacks -- in etymological studies. All the while, giving examples of how words and roots can be traced and connected via their 'cognates' in English and in other languages; with examples that have stood the test of time, and those that have proved to be somewhat less than correct wrong.

A very interesting section on 'folk-etymology' and its impact on the language illuminated a lot of  mistakes that have made it into pop culture and haven't ever made it out. Like where the f-word comes from. spoiler: unknown. not some trumped-up acronym for adulterers in the stocks.

Where else are you going to hear gems like this:  Ju-piter is actually a compound word consisting of an old version of god (dieu-) pronounced dyew- as in soldier, and a variant of the word pater, from which we get father. So Jupiter is literally, the father of the gods. 

The problem, my dear man and here's where I address the 'open-letter' portion of my blog to the author himself, like I'm some kind of big ass New York Times editor, and he may actually read this, is that the stories are a bit rambling, and the thoughts slightly disconnected. Many of your passages read like experiments in free association, which can be a little hard to follow. You skip from examples of correct etymologies, to stories of incorrect etymologies, and I don't discover this until you finally tell me, "...myeh, but that was wrong." I'm paraphrasing

So a little slow, but interesting if you love it. It took me a month or so to pound through this one, and I ended up reading three other books at the same time.  and I wouldn't recommend that unless you're Sybil by-the-way.

* Full title: Word Origins ... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone

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