Anatoly Liberman is a tall man with a slight stoop and an accent that is hard to place. The stoop comes from decades spent searching for the hidden history of words in one of the fifteen languages he can read. It may also be from the weight bearing down on his shoulders as he races the clock. At the age of seventy-nine he is trying to finish one of the greatest achievements in the annals of lexicography: a history, as complete as possible, of some the last words in the English language whose origins remain unknown.
They are simple words, common words, but words whose origins are a mystery: he, she,girl, pimp, ever, gawk, yet. We use these words every day, but Liberman has been working for thirty years to unearth their roots. His sharp mind, breadth of language, and sense of mission have kept him moving steadily toward that goal for the last half of his life. He is driven by the knowledge that if he were gone, no one would have the depth of linguistic knowledge, let alone the drive, to complete his work.
One is short of words to see the effort and joy of discovery Prof gets while discovering the origins:
I asked Liberman what he loved about etymology.
“Love is the wrong word,” he says. “Etymology is not a child or a woman. So there is nothing to love it for. It’s the excitement of discovery. Whether you discover a new particle in physics or the origin of a word, it’s really the same thing. It’s the excitement of the chase, the hunter’s feeling that you had your prey, and that you succeeded!”
It’s a pleasure heightened further by the joy of saving things from history. “One of the great things I am doing,” Liberman tells me, “is that I will return from oblivion so many works and so many names that deserve recognition.”
Take dwarf, which Liberman considers one of his crowning achievements. For over a century, everyone in the English-speaking world believed it was a word carried over from Indo-European. But Liberman knew that every Germanic language except Gothic had a related word, like dwerg and dwaas, which means things like foolish or crazy.
One day, Liberman was looking at an 1884 edition of Friedrich Kluge’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (he has all twenty-four editions) when he saw something incredible. Kluge had made the same connection, tracing dwarf to a Germanic origin, but in later editions gave it up for the more popular Indo-European theory. Suddenly, Liberman knew he had made a great rediscovery.
“When I saw Kluge’s dwesk,” he wrote, “everything in my ideas about Germanic dwarves fell into place. According to the most ancient beliefs, supernatural beings brought on diseases. Language has retained many traces of those superstitions: god is related togiddy, elfshot means lumbago (cf. OE ylfen ‘raving mad’), and troll, most likely, has the same root as droll. The dwarves, before they became anthropomorphic, must have shared their evil power with the gods, elves, and trolls.”
Just amazing.. Do check Prof Liberman’s weekly blog as well..
ON reading this, I was wondering how in economics we have forgotten all such historical scholarship. There is so much scope of applying this historical methodology to economics as well. Today economics scholarship is all about figuring out things which don’t mean anything to anybody..