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An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction
An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction
Anatoly Liberman
Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008
368 pp., 50.00

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John McWhorter

A Shambling Magnificence

How the English language evolved.

People are given to asking we linguists where a word came from: "What is the origin of fork anyway?" The truth is most of us have to look it up in a dictionary like anyone else. Modern linguistics examines the workings of grammar; enthusiasts preoccupied with the origins of words are regarded with genial disdain, as an entomologist might look upon amateur butterfly collectors.

That isn't really fair, as tracing the origins of words combines deductive reasoning, detailed engagement with the intricacies of sound change, command of several languages ancient and modern, and an awareness of history. The words five, finger, fist, foist, Pentecost, and quintessence can all be traced back, for example, to the word for five, penkwe, in a language spoken by nomads who migrated from southern Ukraine or Turkey into Europe about eight thousand years ago. Linguists have reconstructed that language, termed Proto-Indo-European, by comparing words in its dozens of descendants in Europe, Iran and India. Little did its speakers know that their penkwe would also provide the word for what we know as the drink punch: it originated with five ingredients, you see.

Nevertheless, more than occasionally, one finds a word's etymology given as "origin unknown," as if the descent of the word were as baffling as the enigma of Stonehenge. In the introduction to his peculiar but fascinating An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, Anatoly Liberman points out that typically a great deal of serious research has been devoted to the origin of such words. But when no single hypothesis has become accepted as canonical, compilers of etymological dictionaries tend to apply the "origin unknown" stamp. Only diehard specialists will recognize how misleading that label can be.

What enables this is the very fact that etymology is not academicized. "Its practitioners do not meet at special conferences, few manuals summarize the latest contributions to the subject, and it is taught (when at all) only as a component of other courses," Liberman notes. Hence there is no ongoing contest, driven by careerism, to pick a winner among competing accounts of how words emerged. Liberman points out that since the early 20th century, authors of etymological dictionaries have often not even followed current work.

Liberman shows that the words designated as "origin unknown" in English actually have recoverable histories. His Analytic Dictionary takes up a compact 55 words, surveying everything written about their histories over the past few centuries. In each case he shows that the inconclusive verdict now standing in conventional sources is a matter of inattention, and that responsible conclusions can be drawn on cases long considered to have hit a wall.

For example, where did the word yet come from? Okay, in the dictionary you'll find that the Old English word was giet. But that is essentially a matter of "origin unknown": you could find that in an Old English dictionary. The question is what word of different meaning did yet begin as—etymology interesting in the way that makes laymen ask linguists where a word "came from." That interest is satisfied by stories like why we call certain drinks "punch," or that bring began in Proto-Indo-European as two words: bher "to carry" and nek "to reach," i.e., carrying something as to effect its reaching a destination. Bher-nek became bhrenk, and hence today's bring (while elsewhere, nek became part of the word enough, which connotes that something has reached sufficiency).

There has been no smoking-gun account of how we got yet that reaches that far back. This has left space for athletic surmises such as that yet originated as a command "Get!", or that it began in Hebrew, where the equivalent happens to be the wanly similar 'od (upon which one commentator noted, "it must have had a long journey northwards").

This kind of thing makes us forgive those who have decided it is better to just classify yet's origin as "unknown," as does the dense thicket of more scientific but notready-for-prime-time speculations over the years. Liberman takes a machete to the overgrowth and reveals that yet is a fascinating shard of random accretions. Namely, of the three sounds that comprise yet, y is the spawn of a mistake; e is the shadow of what started as a whole word with a different meaning; and t is the remnant of a suffix now extinct.

Yet began as a word with two pieces: a word ei meaning there and a suffix -ta appended to it that meant roughly to. This ei-ta was in Proto-Germanic, the language that spawned English, German, Dutch, Icelandic, and Swedish. Ei-ta meant "there-towards."

In the Proto-Germanic branch Old English, ei-ta fused into a single word, ge¯t. The old - a ending was usually dropped these days. The g happened as a copycat phenomenon: at first, ei-ta had simply become e¯t. But there had been another short little adverb in Proto-Germanic that was used with a to-word appended to it. It was iu, which meant ever, hence iu-ta, "evertowards." So: to a Proto-Germanic speaker there were ei-ta and iu-ta, with meanings that felt similar.

Something happened with iu-ta. The i sound in iu started being pronounced as a y (yu-ta) because "ee" and the y sound are close in the mouth. Then this y sound gradually morphed into a g sound because the g isn't that far from a y in the mouth, such that by Old English, this iu-ta word was now gi¯et. Thus instead of the old ei-ta and iu-ta, there were now e¯t and gi¯et.

To Old English speakers, it felt natural to start pronouncing e¯t as ge¯t since there was that word with a similar meaning gi¯et, just as some people say yourn on the model of mine: humans have a natural drive to iron out a language's wrinkles.

If you are wondering why neither "there-towards" nor "ever-towards" sounds much like the meaning of yet, you are hardly alone: the problem threw etymologists for centuries. The "yet" meaning developed because Old English tended to use gi¯et in two set expressions. Nu¯ meant now, and pa¯ meant then, so nu¯ gi¯et meant "until now": that is, "now-ever-towards." Meanwhile pa¯ gi¯et meant "furthermore," where "ever-towards" lent a sense of movement beyond then-ness: "then and beyond."

After a while, when saying "until then" or "furthermore," people started leaving off nu¯ and pa¯ and just saying gi¯et. This is what languages do: in French, properly one negates a verb by placing ne before and pas afterward: Je ne parle pas "I do not speak." However, in spoken French, one usually leaves the ne out and uses only the pas "Je parle pas" which means that pas, which started as the word for "step," now carries the whole burden of negation.

In the same way, the elision of nu¯ and pa¯ left gi¯et carrying the meaning of both "until now" and "furthermore," which is, if you think about it, what modern yet means: He hasn't come yet (i.e., up to now); I'll show you yet (i.e., in the "furthermore)." Ge¯t, felt as a variant of gi¯et, took on this new meaning as well. By early Modern English, the g's had gone back to y's, and gi¯et was yit while ge¯t was yet: yet won out.

This, then, is where words come from: two words becoming one, sounds falling off, sounds popping up, meaning drifting this way and that, one word dropping out from a two-word expression and leaving the remaining word holding the bag. All of this is easier to see happening in old documents for some words than for others, and Liberman tackles ones where figuring out what happened is more challenging. Believe it or not, this includes staple words like man, boy, and girl.

A book like Liberman's reveals vividly that every word in a language is the end product of eons of heedless transformation. The lay public is mesmerized by this process and endlessly curious about it (so long as the explication doesn't become too technical) and yet tends to view current manifestations of the same kinds of change as lackadaisical and repellent. If e¯t picked up a stray g in early Old English it's just how language changes, but if today other picks up an n (in whole nother, modeled on another), then the time to repent is at hand.

The assumption seems to be that the procession from Old to Middle to Modern English was a majestic pageant, but for some reason, about 150 years ago, any further change in English became inappropriate, as if all of the morphings of sound and meaning over the millennia were a targeted process designed to become, and then forever stay, Modern English.

Each of Liberman's word studies reminds us that the way we speak now is the result of a conglomeration of contingencies piling one atop another in a fashion that can only continue, as it is natural to what human mouths and minds do to a language when using it rapidly and unconsciously over lifetimes. There is a shambling magnificence in this view of language, and it is unfortunate that there are not more etymologists to bring it to life with Professor Liberman's diligence.

John McWhorter is the author most recently of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English (Gotham).

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