An American Editor

May 6, 2010

On Books: An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology

I am very interested in the etymology of words. Consequently, I tend to look for and buy books about language and words. Perhaps the best dictionary-type source of English etymology is Anatoly Lieberman’s An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction (2008, University of Minnesota Press).

A professor of Germanic philology at the University of Minnesota, Lieberman has authored numerous books and articles on the subject of etymology. An Analytic Dictionary is probably his most important work. A relatively sparse book in terms of words discussed (only 55 are addressed), Lieberman introduces a new methodology for reporting etymology. Whether this methodology will be broadly adopted remains to be seen, but it certainly has my vote.

Most etymology dictionaries provide word origins as if the origins are undisputed. In some cases, they do not tackle a word’s origins, noting instead that the origins are “unknown”; in other cases, they present the origins but do not note that the origins are disputed. Rarely do they provide a complete etymology.

Consider the word boy. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories begins its discussion (which is a single, short paragraph) by assigning the origin to Middle English and saying “the origin is obscure.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives slightly more detail but also finds the word to be of “uncertain origin.” Lieberman, in contrast, provides 8 pages of etymological information, discussing all of the existing derivations, all of the research and speculation, and then choosing what he believes to be the likeliest. However, the reader has enough information to draw his or her own conclusion as to the likely origins and a solid basis for further research.

For those with an interest in English etymology, Lieberman’s effort is an important contribution to the subject. Unlike other dictionaries that simply synopsize a word’s history without giving the reader any source information, Lieberman takes great pain to be sure to discuss earlier etymological works, exposing the reader to significantly more than just the conclusion. My hope is that Lieberman will followup with additional volumes of the dictionary and that other etymologists will adopt Lieberman’s approach to word history.

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