Etymology sites attract word lovers.
Can love of language lead to a love of a lifetime?
Melanie Crowley, a Dallas native, has two loves: the weather and words. In fact, her fascination with the capricious Texas climate led her to pursue a degree in meteorology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
Then, in 1994, her love of the origins and development of words (aka etymology) motivated her to launch a Web site called The Logical World of Etymology. In an online bio, Melanie said she is not only fascinated with English but she is also "conversationally fluent in Spanish and Lakota (Sioux)," plus she's "well-familiar with several other languages, including Latin, German, French, and Italian."
It just so happened that one of the first visitors to Melanie's site was Mike Crowley, a native of Cardiff, Wales, who studied Welsh as well as Sanskrit, Latin, French, German, and Tibetan.
Mike and Melanie began exchanging e-mails. Although they lived half a continent apart at the time, they started a whirlwind romance ("Well, she IS a meteorologist," says Mike's online bio). The couple eventually married and began collaborating on the etymology site, which they renamed in 1997. It's now known as Take Our Word for It (http://www.takeourword.com), one of several etymology Web sites that attract word lovers worldwide.
Taking Them at Their Word
Take Our Word for It is a Webzine divided into three departments: Spotlight, Words to the Wise, and Curmudgeon's Corner.
Spotlight expounds on the history of a word or a set of related words. For example, Melanie drew on her meteorological background in one article to explain the classification of clouds and the etymology of their names ("cumulus," for instance, is derived from the Latin word for "little heap").
In the Words to the Wise column, Melanie and Mike answer readers' questions, such as: "Did the singer Beyonce actually coin the word 'bootylicious,' as some newspaper articles have reported?" Truth be told, she did not, according to the Crowleys, who also provide a citation of the word in a 1992, obscenity-laden Dr. Dre song.
Curmudgeon's Corner is where regular contributors Malcolm Tent and Barb Dwyer (as well as a few "guestmudgeons") complain about abuses and misuses of the English language. "You don't need to tell us that they are being prescriptivist and elitist, or that they are essentially denying that English is a living, evolving language," according to the Crowleys. "We know that. We tell Barb and Malcolm that all the time. They just don't listen and continue to complain. And we continue to publish their comments for your enjoyment."
The Webzine's archives, dating from the first issue published on July 20, 1998, are available through the site's Back-Issues link. You also can search the site for keywords. So far, Take Our Word for It hasn't been updated in a few months, but you can still find some recent musings on words in the site's blog.
Tracking Words' Magical Roots
"It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature."
This quotation is posted on a page at the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com) site, which was created in 2001 to track word roots. The dictionary bills itself as "a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English."
Douglas Harper, a historian and author based in Lancaster, Pa., said he began working on the site "after I looked one day for a free dictionary of word origins online and found that there was none. You could subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary for $550 a year.... There were free dictionaries with definitions, some lists of slang words and their sources, and some sites that listed a few dozen of the strangest etymologies of English words. But there was no comprehensive public list of the words we use every day--words like 'the' and 'day'--that told what they used to be before we got them." (OED Online--http://www.oed.com--is now available to individuals in North and South America for $29.95 a month or $295 a year.)
Harper said that no university had "seen fit to shackle its graduate students to the cyber-mill, grinding out an online etymology dictionary," so he decided to do it himself. "I also did this to increase my understanding of the language, and its ancestors and relatives," he said. "As a writer and editor with an amateur's passion for linguistics, I took this as a joy ride more than drudgery. And I know so much more useless trivia than I did when I started (applaud is related to explode; three people can have a dialogue; and if anyone calls you feisty, slug him)."
The Online Etymology Dictionary's entry for "dialogue" follows. However, since the etymology for "feisty" is a bit vulgar, you'll have to look that one up yourself.
c. 1225, "literary work consisting of a conversation between two or more people," from O.Fr. dialoge, from L. dialogus, from Gk. dialogos, related to dialogesthai "converse," from dia- "across" + legein "speak" (see lecture). Sense broadened to "a conversation" 1401. Mistaken belief that it can only mean "conversation between two persons" is from confusion of dia- and di-.
The date in the entry indicates the earliest year for which there is a surviving written record. Harper said the date is "approximate, especially before about 1700, since a word may have been used in conversation for hundreds of years before it turns up in a manuscript that has had the good fortune to survive the centuries." Each entry also includes a link to Dictionary.corn so you can easily access the definition of a word.
Harper also provided a complete list of sources he used, including An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence (available through Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5402).
Another one of Harper's sources was the Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Ernest Klein, rabbi of Nove Zamky in Czechoslovakia from 1931 to 1944. Harper noted on his site that Klein was deported to the Dachau concentration camp during the Holocaust. When Klein returned home after the liberation in the camps, he discovered that his father, wife, child, and two of his three sisters did not survive Auschwitz. In the introduction to his dictionary, Klein hopes that a shared love of words might actually lead nations to a greater love of all humanity: "May this dictionary, which ... 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."
For links to more etymology sites, visit Yahoo!'s list (http://dir.yahoo.com/Social_Science/Linguistics_and_Human_Languages /Etymology) and Wikipedia, which includes the origins of computer terms, company names, and even band names (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_etymologies).
Thomas Pack is a writer who lives near Louisville, Ky. His e-mail address is email@example.com. Send your comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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