Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Online Etymology Dictionary

Regular readers of this blog may realize how often I resort to the Online Etymology Dictionary to resolve my bafflement over a good many things. Like many reference works, I had used this free resource, usually checking it against other sources, without thinking too much about it. It seemed to have sprung into being whole, and I assumed there was a team of zealous scribes somewhere, busily looking into the sources of all our English words. I say all, which is not entirely true, but when you can find a word like, say, 'furbelow' there, you know it's extensive.

One evening recently, I happened to see an abbreviation for a language there that I wasn't sure about, so with uncharacteristic industry, I searched out a list of abbreviations. I didn't actually discover the meaning of the abbreviation--and have since forgotten what it was--but I did find a whole list of supplemental material that I'd never thought to look for before. And it was here that I discovered that the online dictionary is actually the work of one man. Douglas Harper, upon discovering that there really was no comprehensive free online dictionary of etymology, decided to compile his own. Drawing on a whole host of basic sources and a raft of supplemental ones (so in that sense, there really is a team of scholars behind this) he has singled-handedly brought them together for the likes of you and me to access easily.

Easy enough, you say. The  man is probably some pinched old hermit, holed away in an attic. In fact, he is the father of young children whom he shares the care for, has a full time night job at a newspaper, and has written several historical titles about Chester, Pennysylvania, mostly relating to the Civil War. The one I like most, perhaps, is West Chester to 1865: That Elegant and Notorious Place.

The online etymology dictionary is his gift to the world. (Although if you want to show the guy some thanks, you can sponsor a word for ten bucks for six months.) I really liked and was moved by his dedications at the end of his introduction page. He talks about one of the chief sources for his work, Ernest Klein's A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Klein, he tells us, was  Rabbi of Nové Zámky in Czechoslovakia from 1931-44, and 'was deported to Dachau and returned home after liberation to find "that my father, my wife, my only child Joseph, and two of my three sisters had suffered martyrdom in Auschwitz." He moved to Canada, and out of his sorrow and urged on by his surviving sister he set down his lifelong love of etymology into a book, and in its introduction he wrote:
May this dictionary, which plastically shows the affinity and interrelationship of the nations of the world in the way in which their languages developed, contribute to bringing them nearer to one another in the sincere pursuit of peace on earth -- which was one of my cardinal aims in writing this dictionary.'
Ernest Klein

Thank you, Douglas Harper, for sharing your work and this history with us all.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful thing. Thank him and thank you!

  2. It's pretty terrific, isn't it?

    He even apologizes for not being able to answer everyone's emails. What a guy.

  3. I shall note this. Thanks.

    This guy's from Pennsylvania, works nights at a newspaper, and continues the efforts of an Eastern Eurpean Jew who wound up in Canada? Hmm, in what ways am I not like this guy?

    What paper does he work for?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Yes, I noticed there were a few similarities. To quote the brief bio on his website,

    He was arguably the second-most-famous assistant city editor ever to work at the West Chester, Pa., "Daily Local News." The other was Dave Barry. The newspaper was affectionately known by its readers as the "Daily Lack of News.

    I couldn't really tell if he was still working for that paper or on to something else.

    He also apparently works or worked the night shift...

  5. A piece of Inquirer scuttlebutt has it that the great Gene Roberts, elevated to sainthood about the time the Inquirer slipped from the second rank of American newspapers, refused to hire Dave Barry at the Inquirer because Barry wanted to write humor columns. I think we all know ho that turned out.

  6. I think it's probably hard to run a newspaper once you've ascended.

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  8. The Online Etymological Dictionary was my favourite site. I would spend hours looking at the roots of words, looking at Indo language root words and marvelling. And then you went all Wittgenstein. 'Meaning is use' and no longer can I read back to where words may have come from and having creative reveries about word origins and the strangeness but connected ness of old Irish words and IndoEuropean words. Wonderful. For example, the connection between the word 'horse' and 'running' and 'rivers' or 'currents'. I am devastated. Call me old fashioned, I am no fan of 'meaning as use'. I don't think words have absolutely definitive meanings, but I loved the word pathways that gave me such reveries. Give me the history back to the postulated origins. No more the mention of IndoEuropean roots, but absolutely obvious meanings such as 'Horseface' = horse+face. Thanks for that. I could not work that out for myself. And I don't care about when it was first used, or only incidentally. Please return the old site as an alternative source of inspiration. Please offer it as an alternative as I don't care a bit at all about your new site. A lot of work for you and praise for that but…I am devastated. Wittgenstein be damned.

  9. Hi the list of abbreviations says "pers" determines how the VERB is inflected. That should be PRONOUN. Love your work, will send something to keep it going.