Good etymology book?
December 23, 2009 6:29 PM   Subscribe

My friend recently mentioned that he'd like to have a good (American English) etymology book. Can anyone suggest a good one? It can be simple and short or long and detailed, but I'd prefer to err on the side of long and detailed.
posted by helixportland to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
posted by notyou at 6:42 PM on December 23, 2009

Yeah, the Oxford English Dictionary is the gold standard for this sort of thing. It's quite honestly less dictionary and more encyclopedia.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 6:44 PM on December 23, 2009

I enjoy the "I Hear America Speaking" and "I hear America Singing" books. They are encyclopedic, and go into the etymology of common American words and phrases.

Books such as these, and "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" and the Panatti's books are found in the Reference area of bookstores. There are MANY titles, and many are FUN and interesting!
posted by Jinx of the 2nd Law at 7:41 PM on December 23, 2009

Bill Bryson wrote a fantastic book on the subject, although it tends more towards the "simple and short".
posted by deadmessenger at 8:39 PM on December 23, 2009

The OED is kind of the gold standard, and correspondingly expensive.

I have a copy of the "Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology", which as far as I know is unrelated to the OED, but is pretty good at answering the usual "Huh, I wonder where this word came from? Is it related to that word?" questions one has. It doesn't have the involved, entertaining digressions that a popular-history-of-English type book would have.
posted by hattifattener at 11:47 PM on December 23, 2009

My morphology professor did not like the OED for etymology and highly recommended the sometimes irascible Partridge's Origins instead. It's late, I have a fever, and I'm on an iPod so I'm not going to link you, but even though it's out of print, it's wonderful. Whenever I see it in a used book shop, I pick it up for future gifting.
posted by wintersweet at 12:50 AM on December 24, 2009

P. S. Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer, but he does not know very much about language. I don't recommend any of his language-related books.
posted by wintersweet at 12:52 AM on December 24, 2009

I would go for an up-to-date dictionary with good etymologies, and my recommendation would be for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, which not only has good, thorough etymologies but relates them (when appropriate) to appendices of Indo-European and Semitic roots, which allows for a wonderfully comprehensive view of how words are linked together historically (not to mention that it's a beautiful book in its own right, with well-chosen color illustrations). Amazon says List Price: $60.00 and offers it for $36.00.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology by Robert K. Barnhart looks like it's probably good, but I haven't investigated it and thus can't personally recommend it; at $45.00/$32.85 it's a good buy.

Another book you might consider is An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction, by Anatoly Liberman; he discusses a limited set of words in great detail, and it would be a good insight into how etymology is actually done (as opposed to the standard dictionaries, which simply present the currently accepted results).

My morphology professor did not like the OED for etymology and highly recommended the sometimes irascible Partridge's Origins instead.

Your morphology professor was weird and Partridge is completely unreliable. The only thing wrong with the OED is that most of it is still pretty old—the updating started with M and is still (I think) on R, so the etymologies in, say, A are well over a century old.

Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer, but he does not know very much about language.

Heartily seconded. Please do not buy his language books for information.
posted by languagehat at 8:15 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I will grant you that morphology prof was and is a bit eccentric; I defer to your expertise! Perhaps he just sensed a fellow curmudgeon in Partridge.
posted by wintersweet at 10:32 AM on December 24, 2009

If you can find them, I recommend the 2 volume set Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Earnest Weekley (They're Dover books).
posted by jimfl at 11:06 AM on December 25, 2009

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone!
posted by helixportland at 2:14 PM on December 25, 2009

I recommend the 2 volume set Etymological Dictionary of Modern English by Earnest Weekley (They're Dover books).

I strongly counter this recommendation. Earnest Weekley was born in 1865 and his book came out in 1924. Dover books are cheap and sturdy, and in this case that's about all you can say for it; the information is so outdated as to be useless. (Of course some of it's still valid, but you have no way of knowing which.)
posted by languagehat at 9:29 AM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are you suggesting that the etymology of words migrate?

It seems odd to suggest that etymologies would be outdated, meaning they were once correct, but now they're no longer correct. Given no other data, it seems like the further one is away from the genesis of an English word, the more error about that genesis might accrete.
posted by jimfl at 8:41 AM on December 27, 2009

You don't seem to understand what etymology is, which is understandable, since such things are not taught in schools. Etymology is not like arithmetic; it does not provide a set of universally valid, confirmable answers that, once discovered, are good for all eternity. It is a set of educated guesses. Etymologists look at a word, trace it back as far as they can (which sometimes is not far at all), compare it to words of similar meaning in related languages, and try to come up with a story that fits the known facts. Now, sometimes this is easy and pretty much inarguable; the verb bear, for example, goes back to Old English beran, which has cognates not only in the other Germanic languages (Gothic baíran, Old Norse bera, Old High German beran, etc.) but in all the major Indo-European languages as well (Greek phérō, Latin ferō, Sanskrit bhar-, Old Church Slavic berǫ, Old Irish berid, Tocharian pär-, etc.), all meaning 'bear, carry.' No problem here; the English word can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European verbal roote *bher- 'bear, carry.' This is one of the first roots you learn when you study historical linguistics because it's so clear and unassailable, and any book of etymology produced after the mid-nineteenth century will say essentially the same thing about it.

But this is not the rule, it is a fairly rare exception. Many, many words, including some of the most common (like boy and girl), cannot be traced back very far and have no clear cognates, and it becomes a matter of weighing various hypotheses against each other, and etymologists frequently change their minds about the most likely answer as more becomes known about (for example) American Indian languages and dialects of European languages (two common sources). If you're interested in learning more, you might take a look at Anatoly Liberman's recent book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, which discusses the procedures he uses and provides articles discussing particular words in detail.

In any event, yes, etymologies change frequently, and anything more than a few decades old is hopelessly out of date.
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on December 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

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