The waifs of English, that is, the words nobody’s been taking care of, etymologically speaking. Alyssa Ford has a good piece in the Star Tribune of Minnesota about Anatoly Liberman, a linguist trying to finish “his masterwork, a multi-volume dictionary on the history of common English words”
As the professor labors on his dictionary in the solitude of his library carrel, his wordy colleagues from around the world are closely following the progress of the “Liberman Project.”
“At conferences, we ask each other how Anatoly is doing on the dictionary, how close he is,” says Joan Houston Hall, the editor of the DARE at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We are all rooting for him.”
“The work he’s doing is extremely important to our understanding of the history of English,” says Steve Harris, adjunct associate professor of German and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He added that if Liberman is able to complete the dictionary, he could very well be added to the pantheon of great lexicographers including Murray, Walter Skeat and Noah Webster. …
…As he dug further, Liberman discovered that about 1,000 common English words — mooch, nudge, man, girl, boy, frog, oat, witch and skedaddle among them — seemed to be highly confused or all but untraceable, as if they magically appeared in English, pouf!
“It was like finding all these waifs of English who run around with dirty T-shirts and no shoes and no one takes care of them,” says Liberman. “And suddenly I wanted to build a nice, warm orphanage for the parentless words, for the boys and girls and heifers too.”
It would be a new kind of word-origin dictionary, one focusing on the most problematic, misunderstood words in English. Liberman knew right away it was a magnificent, massive project that could take 30 years or longer to complete.
Assuming he completes it, it will of course be far too expensive for anyone but libraries, but I will definitely drop by my local library to leaf through it. I do love a good, meaty etymology.