Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 14 • July 2005

What does it take to write a new English etymological dictionary today?

Antoly Liberman

 Anatoly Liberman was born (1937) and educated in Russia, received his PhD (1965) at Leningrad University, and is Doctor of Philological Sciences (French-German Habilitation, 1972) from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In 1975 he moved to the USA, and has since been teaching Germanic Philology at the University of Minnesota. His main areas of specialization are general and historical phonology (with strong emphasis on Germanic), etymology, medieval literature, folklore, history of linguistics, poetic translation, and poetry. Professor Liberman has published extensively (nearly 500 articles), his main books on language issues include Islandskaia Prosodika [Icelandic Prosody] (Leningrad, 1971, in Russian), Germanic Accentology, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis, 1982), Word Heath (Rome, 1994), and Word Origins… And How We Know Them (Oxford, 2005). He is the editor of Stefán Einarsson’s selected writings, and editor and translator into English of the works by N.S. Trubetzkoy and Vladimir Propp.



English etymological lexicography had two peaks: the 4th edition of Skeat’s dictionary (Skeat 1910) and etymological comments in those fascicles of the OED that James A. H. Murray and Henry Bradley edited. Of the other authors, Ernest Weekley (1921) deserves a mention, though his forte was borrowings from Old French and putative reflexes of proper names. The rest is based on Skeat and the OED. Weekley’s failure is typical: it is not particularly difficult to offer a new treatment of several hundred words, but a full-scale etymological dictionary requires a superhuman effort, for who can delve into and re-evaluate the history of the entire vocabulary of English? All the post-Weekley dictionaries are derivative: published only to be sold, they recycle the same hypotheses and add nothing to what can be found elsewhere. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE] (1965; numerous reprints) presents the material from the OED in a condensed form but shows almost no traces of original research. As a result, contemporary English etymological dictionaries are at the level reached a hundred years ago; they cannot even be compared with the best samples of Sanskrit, Classical Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Gothic, German, Dutch, Old Icelandic, Lithuanian, and Slavic lexicography. Students of Ossetic and Sorbian [sic] are better off in this respect than those who study English, despite the fact that no other Indo-European language has been investigated so thoroughly, one may say with such excessive zeal.


Detailed comments on etymology also occur in our “thick” dictionaries, two of which are outstanding in this respect: The Century Dictionary and Wyld (1932). Charles P. G. Scott, the author of the etymologies in The Century Dictionary, summarized everything that had been known about the origin of English words and added the Germanic and the Indo-European perspective to his explanations. He relied on the third edition of Skeat (which was no more than a reprint of the first, 1882, edition; Skeat reflected the results of his later findings in several “concise” versions of his opus magnum and in the fourth edition) and the early fascicles of the OED. Wyld, an outstanding language historian, had many non-trivial ideas on the origin of English words, but he, too, left his mark only in a handful of entries. The dilemma that Scott and Wyld faced is familiar: both were imaginative scholars, but they dealt with thousands of words about which they had nothing new to say; hence mistakes, gaps in the presentation, and absurdities, as Weekley, himself an inhabitant of a glass house, called them.


The time has come to stop producing commercial etymological dictionaries of English. Those who need some basic information on the origin of English words will find it in any of the “shorter” Oxford dictionaries, Webster, the Heritage, and The Random House Dictionary, to mention a few. Specialists will continue using the OED, Skeat, Wyld, the dictionaries of other languages (to the extent that, while examining cognates, they feature English vocabulary), and occasional publications. The main difference between the fourth edition of Skeat and the dictionaries of Sanskrit, Latin, etc., referred to in the opening paragraph of this essay is obvious: those discuss the scholarly literature on every word, whereas Skeat cited the opinions of his predecessors rarely, only when he saw fit. He was interested in promoting what he took to be the best solutions, rather than surveying the field. We do not know how closely he followed the philological journals published abroad (his German and Scandinavian colleagues constantly pointed to his lack of familiarity with their work) and whether in his old age he was as avid a reader of linguistic literature as in his youth. The editors of the OED made every effort to keep abreast of the times, but etymology constituted a small (though important) part of their work. Murray’s policy was to say “origin unknown” when no reasonable etymology of a word existed. And quite naturally, “thick” dictionaries, with the sole exception of Wyld, never give references to the literature (Wyld’s references are also sporadic and vague: “As Kluge suggests” and the like). By contrast, the authors of the Greek, Latin, Gothic, and other etymological dictionaries list numerous hypotheses and consider their merits and demerits. When they say “origin unknown,” we understand why a certain word has defied the efforts of so many researchers and what data are missing for formulating even a first intelligent guess. In other cases we are told that the word has attracted no one’s attention (consequently, if we want to discover its history, we must begin the work from scratch). But, and this is an especially important point, we come away with a full bibliography of the question and can pick up where our predecessors left off. Such dictionaries can be called encyclopedic, or analytic, in contradistinction to the dogmatic format Skeat and his successors chose.


English etymological dictionaries have not always been dogmatic. 17th and 18th century authors listed (and accepted or refuted) the ideas of their predecessors because what at that time passed for etymological research did not rely on strict procedures. Students of antiquities sought for look-alikes in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Old English, Irish, or Dutch, depending on their predilections, and derived English words from the words of those languages. Occasionally their derivations proved to be right, but in the absence of method everybody’s suggestion seemed to be worthy of at least some respect. A modern user of our oldest etymological dictionaries (published roughly until 1850) finds invaluable surveys of the oldest views and forms an idea of how knowledge developed. For a historian of science, the way to the truth is no less interesting than the truth itself. Then comparative linguistics came into its own, and sound laws were discovered. Guesswork gave way to the science of etymology. The limitations of this science became clear much later, but the core of comparative linguistics withstood all attacks, even though nowadays it is more customary to refer to sound correspondences rather than sound laws. Polemic continued to rage in journals, while dictionaries included what was certain and left out the controversial parts.


The pendulum swung in the opposite direction only in the 20th century. By that time it had become hard to find the relevant literature. Even in Germany one could not be sure that a proposed etymology had not been offered earlier. Scholars realized a need for digests, and analytic dictionaries appeared. I can think of two reasons this trend had no influence on English studies. First, the OED was such an incomparable achievement that further work in etymology did not seem to be necessary. Oxford University Press launched several successful abridgments of the OED and became the capital of English lexicography, with a perennial classic as its cornerstone. Second, comparative philology did not flourish in the English speaking world as it did in Germany. A whole encyclopedia can be filled with the names of distinguished German comparativists. In England and the United States, such names will not fill a page. Throughout the 19th century etymology remained a German discipline. Later de Saussure and Meillet contributed to its glory, but Germanic was not at the center of their interests (a mere dialect within Indo-European). Benveniste continued the same tradition.


It is thus not fortuitous that the ODEE appeared only in 1965 and did not go beyond the partly outdated information amassed by its model. While English etymological lexicography remained dormant (popularization can be ignored), articles and books on the origin of English words kept appearing in a steady stream. Dictionary makers sometimes reproduced the latest proposals with undue deference (a classic case is the treatment of boy in the post-OED era: the word was said to be of French origin), but, as a rule, such proposals did not make a stir, for authorities of Skeat’s and Murray’s caliber were no longer in view. The golden age of etymology had receded into the past. At the same time historical linguistics lost its prestige. The epoch of structuralism set in, fewer and fewer students were trained in the old periods of the Germanic languages, and those who were soon realized that departments of English, let alone linguistics, did not vie for the honor of hiring them. The shrinking demand nearly killed the source of supply. Fortunately, the public knew nothing of those developments and kept asking where words come from. An army of well-meaning journalists catered to their curiosity, but they had neither the time nor the expertise for independent research. They, too, recycled the OED. Most “thick” dictionaries keep an etymologist on their staff or hire consultants. Their contribution to “revised and enlarged” editions cannot make up for the absence of a full-scale analytic dictionary of English etymology. However much the press may pay its consultants, they won’t be able to explain the origin of bird, Cockney, dwarf, god, man, wife, etc. by the deadline. Whether they will be able to do so later is beyond the scope of the present discussion.


About twenty years ago, I embarked on writing an analytic etymological dictionary of English. At the moment, we do not have even the smallest clearing house of suggestions on the origin of English words. I will cite one example that deals with a relatively exotic borrowed word, namely, osprey. Here is what the ODEE says: “…sea-eagle, fish-hawk XV [that is, first recorded in the 15th century]; egret plume XIX. –O[ld] F[rench] ospres, repr[esenting]. obscurely L[atin] OSSIFRAGE. In modF orfraie, [obsolete] offraie (XVI), which is also unexplained.” This is a summary of the etymology in the OED. Skeat says the same, and so do all the old and current French and English dictionaries except one. In the Heritage, the entry osprey contains the following explanation: “Middle English ospray, probably from Old French ospreit (unattested), from Vulgar Latin avispreda (unattested), from Latin avis praedae, “bird of prey”: avis, bird, (see awi- in Appendix*) + praeda, prey (see ghend- in Appendix*). The Old French form and denotation are influenced by Old French osfraie, from Latin ossifraga, OSSIFRAGE.” As we can see, Latin ossifraga, although still present, has been demoted to an “influence.” It is a remarkable fact that in two authoritative dictionaries we find conflicting etymologies of the word, both stated dogmatically and without references. An analytic dictionary would have discussed the value of both reconstructions and said that both are debatable. The Heritage does not state that the traditional derivation of osprey is wrong (incidentally, I have not been able to discover the source of the avis praedae hypothesis), and the ODEE fails to inform us whether the etymology it gives is putative or certain. The phrase “representing obscurely” will puzzle even a seasoned linguist, and the statement that Modern French orfraie is also unexplained adds a note of despair to the rest of the entry. The plot thickens without a promise of a denouement.


Below I will give a brief account of what has been done toward the production of an analytic dictionary of English etymology. Over the years, I have been operating on a shoestring budget, but the money I have had allowed me to hire graduate and undergraduate assistants. Fortunately, many volunteers have offered their services. My team examined all the sets of all the philological journals in more than twenty languages, popular magazines like Notes and Queries, and endless rows of miscellaneous publications and Festschriften. The assistants were told to copy the articles and reviews that dealt with the origin of English words and their cognates. They read some works in English, German, and the continental Scandinavian languages, but I had no help for Icelandic, Faroese, Dutch, Frisian, Romance, Slavic, and Baltic and did all the screening in those languages myself. Bibliographies were of course useful, but, while looking through lists of titles, it is hard to judge whether an article contains any etymological information, for interesting ideas on the origin of English words turn up in works on Latin numismatics, Old Indian demonology, Armenian syntax, Slavic morphology, and so on. The reasons for that are obvious. Language history and the history of culture are inseparable from etymology. Also, numerous English words have cognates in other Indo-European languages (a study of German gleiten or of Swedish dverg is as valuable for the etymology of glide and dwarf as a study of those English words). Titles like “The Origin of the Verb glide” are rare, and there was no substitute for opening one book after another. At present, Part 1 of my database contains slightly over 18,500 titles. Every article (paper, review, report) has been marked for the words whose origins are discussed there. Part 2 is a word list: next to each word (there are over 14,000 of them) the page numbers referring to the titles in Part 1 appear.


As Corneille said: “The tragedy is ready; I must now only write the verses.” With such a database at my disposal, all that remains is to sit down and write an analytic dictionary of English etymology. However, there are at least two handicaps. The main of them has been mentioned above: every language contains too many words! For this reason, I have divided the presumably native vocabulary of English into several groups: words without established cognates outside English, words with one or more established cognates only within Germanic, words with cognates in Germanic and elsewhere in Indo-European, borrowings from the Romance languages, and borrowings from other languages. This classification often breaks down, for a word believed not to have cognates anywhere may be shown to have some, a presumably native word may turn out to be a borrowing, and so forth, but in principle, it serves me well. My immediate aim is to write entries on the most common words of the first group (between five and six hundred), these worried bones of etymology, as a reviewer of Skeat’s dictionary once called them. I emphasize the phrase the most common words (boy, girl, lad, lass, and their likes) because volatile slang, dialectal words, and the rare words that are featured in dictionaries can wait. Germanic words without established Indo-European cognates (such as dwarf, shilling, and wife) will be the next group to deal with.


A second handicap is that writing an entry is not a mechanical process. I must first reread everything written in the articles that have made their way into the database and are now located in my office, look up the words under discussion in about two hundred dictionaries and numerous books (they fill my carrel at the library), evaluate all the proposals (there may be as many as 21 of them: this happened to yet; however, the usual number fluctuates between three and six), defend the most reasonable one, advance my own, or concede defeat (“the origin is still unknown”). I have been able to offer many good solutions, but it would be rash to expect that I will break the spell laid on every intractable word. No analytic dictionary has done so. Emma Micawber, the wife of David Copperfield’s unforgettable friend, once declared: “Talent Mr. Micawber has, money Mr. Micawber has not.” This is a familiar problem. If I succeed in getting a renewable grant from NEH (the National Endowment for the Humanities,, I will hire assistants and with a bit of luck complete my project. Or perhaps some reader of this newsletter will realize what a wonderful enterprise my dictionary is and give me several hundred thousand dollars (my project did not die years ago only because of the interest in it by two philanthropists). By now I have written more than fifty entries (they range from two to fifteen single-spaced pages in two columns) and published most of them as articles. A volume of those entries, thoroughly reworked for the dictionary, along with the database, will be brought out by the University of Minnesota Press. I submitted both manuscripts in February 2005.




Heritage = The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. William Morris, ed. Boston, etc.: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. and Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969.

Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1882. 2nd ed., 1884; 3rd ed., 1897; 4th ed., 1910.

Weekley, Ernst. An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. 1921. London: John Murray.

Wyld = The Universal Dictionary of the English Language. Henry C. Wyld, ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1932.



The following sample entries from Anatoly Liberman’s new etymological English dictionary are available online:

·        Fag

·        Heather

·        Lass

·        Ragamuffin

·        Stubborn



K Dictionaries Ltd
8 Nahum Street, Tel Aviv 63503 Israel
tel: 972-3-5468102 • fax: 972-3-5468103