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.


  1. Jan Freeman says:

    “Pouf”? I see that that’s how she wrote it — but for me, the magic word is “poof” (a “pouf” is a hairstyle — or a tuffet).

  2. I just read Liberman’s Word Origins and How We Know Them; it’s definitely worthwhile. He not only explains his methods and his goals, he does it with a playful wit, which I suspect will add extra interest to his dictionary.

  3. He has a weekly column on word origins on the OUP blog: The Oxford Etymologist

  4. “Pouf”? I see that that’s how she wrote it — but for me, the magic word is “poof” (a “pouf” is a hairstyle — or a tuffet).
    Yes, I had the same reaction.

  5. Word Origins was a tad too eurocentric for me, particularly the parts about onomatopœias and sound symbolism (he’s very liberal in saying that such-and-such sound clearly makes people feel the same thing in the whole world, then quoting a few examples from IE languages to prove it…).
    Still the book was more than worth it.
    Also I had kind of assumed Anatoly Liberman would be related to Mark :)

  6. “skedaddle ” This always sounded to me like a jokey extension of ‘scat’.
    “oats” – instead of ‘haver’ or whatever the English reflex should be? Okay, but you gotta love a language that feels a need to invent a slang term for oats.
    “girl” – I still think it’s a borrowing of “gearrchaile”. I know it doesn’t quite work.

  7. Leonardo Boiko says:

    That’s a cool word, “waif”. I wonder if it has helped the spread of the meme “mai waifu” (though the latter is a /waɪ/, not /weɪ/).

  8. What is odd about “man” and “frog”? They both seem, to my amateur eye, obviously related to German cognates. Or are these false correspondences? I had always assumed that “dwarf” and “zwerg” were descended from the same Germanic root as well.

  9. Vanya, I think those Germanic etyma are waifs within IE. How tidy it would be if they had obvious Finnic cognates.

  10. mollymooly says:

    I have always spelt hairstyle/tuffet “pouffe” –the French extravagance seems to fit. I avoid spelling “poof(ter)”, which is BrE for AmE “fag(got)”. For magical disappearances, I must resort to a “puff”, typically of smoke.

  11. I imagined that skedaddle was a shortening of let’s get out of here.

  12. Leonardo Boiko: Sorry to say the Libermans are not related.

  13. I enjoyed “Word Origins” a lot. But where does he get the idea that Carroll’s “snark” is a blend of “snake” and “shark”? He provides no reference.

  14. One of the Hatch sisters (whom Dodgson notoriously photographed) recalled that it was snail and shark.
    See also posts at bradshaw of the future.

  15. Exactly… so where did Liberman get the snake from?

  16. David Marjanović says:

    What is odd about “man” and “frog”? They both seem, to my amateur eye, obviously related to German cognates. Or are these false correspondences?

    Man most obviously isn’t. Frog… I can’t explain the consonant at the end.

    I had always assumed that “dwarf” and “[Z]werg” were descended from the same Germanic root as well.

    Indeed. The ancestral [ɣ] became [g] in German, while in English it was devoiced (in its word-final position) to [x], which then turned into [f] as it did in laugh. The High German consonant shift turned /d/ into /t/, and the resulting /tw/ was run through the High German consonant shift a second time in Middle High German to become /tsv/.
    Boy has got to be related to southern German Bub, the final /b/ of which only exists in the plural (and then only as a ghost that turns the ending -en into /m/). But don’t ask me where the English -y comes from.
    I have no idea about the others. Well, nudge might possibly maybe be related to German nuckeln “to gently and sustainedly suck at a baby bottle or pacifier”; the sounds fit (the -l- once was the grammatical marker for a frequentative).

  17. David Marjanović says:

    the final /b/ of which only exists in the plural

    …in the dialects! Or at least those Bavarian-Austrian dialects I have any idea of! In the standard language, it’s there throughout – except the word is somewhat rarely used there, because it’s regional.

  18. David: In the standard language, Bub would be /bʊp/, no?
    The OED has a vast amount to say about the etymology of frog. I’ve cut back some of the repetition here:
    The stem-final geminated consonant in Old English frogga, frocga is unusual and difficult to explain; it is probably related to the similar geminate shown by docga ‘dog’ and other words denoting animals which are listed at that entry. It is possible that frogga shows an alteration of Old English frosc (also frox, forsc: see frosh) by association with this group of words, perhaps originally as a hypocoristic derivative, although it is perhaps also possible that frogga shows an isolated reflex of a Germanic base ultimately cognate with that of frosc (see further below).
    Words for a frog with initial fr- in Old English and other Germanic languages can be divided into four groups:
    (1) Old English frosc (also frox, forsc: see frosh), cognate with Middle Dutch vorsch, versch, vorsche (Dutch vors, now chiefly in kikvors), Middle Low German vrosch, vorsch, vors, Old High German frosc (Middle High German vorsch, vors, German Frosch), Old Icelandic froskr, Swedish (regional) frosk, further etymology uncertain, perhaps ultimately a derivative < an extended form of an Indo-European verbal base with the meaning ‘to hop’, reflected by Sanskrit pru- ‘to leap’ (probably further related to plu- ‘to swim’ (see flow v.; perhaps compare plavaga, plavaṅga ‘monkey, frog’); the same extended form is perhaps reflected also by Russian pryt′ ‘speed, quickness, liveliness’ (late 18th cent., although earlier currency is perhaps implied by the adverb adjective prytkij ‘quick, lively’ (17th cent. in Old Russian) and the adverb prytko ‘quickly, nimbly, in a lively manner’ (1562 in Old Russian); now chiefly in fixed phrases, e.g. vo vsju pryt′ ‘as fast as one’s legs can carry one’), and (with added velar suffix) prygat′ ‘to leap, to jump, to hop’ (late 18th cent.); perhaps compare also Lithuanian sprugti ‘to escape’, which may be < the same Indo-European base with s mobile, although the evidence to support such a reconstruction is very limited.
    (2) [frog itself, as explained above].
    (3) Middle English frūde [ModE] froud, which (although also beginning with fr-) is probably unrelated; this is perhaps ultimately (with operation of Verner’s Law) < an ablaut variant (showing also sound-symbolic lengthening of the vowel) of the same Germanic base as Old Icelandic frauðr, Old Swedish fördh, frödher (Swedish frö), Old Danish frødh (Danish frø); perhaps ultimately < the same base as froth, hence referring to the slimy skin of a frog. (It is also possible that Middle English frode may show another distinct word in this same group.)
    (4) Old Icelandic frauke, which probably shows a derivative of the forms under (3). It is possible that froke could instead show a borrowing of this word.
    Many scholars have attempted to link all four groups of forms, assuming a variety of different starting points, but none of these attempts has been wholly successful.
    In sense A. 3 ["a swelling of or under the tongue"] after classical Latin rānula [> ModE ranula] The phrase frog in the throat is probably not connected with this, instead alluding purely to the croaky call of a frog. Compare German einen Frosch im Hals haben in the same sense. (German Frosch also occurs in sense A. 3, but again the phrase is probably independent of this.)
    Old French froit, froiz ‘frog’ shows a borrowing < a Germanic language.
    With sense A. 8 (in use with reference to persons or individuals) compare early use as a byname and surname: Nicholas Frog (1207), William le Frogge (1275), William Frogge (1332), etc. The precise reasons for the specific uses in senses A. 9 [Dutch person] and A. 10 [French person] are uncertain; in A. 9 perhaps with allusion to the marshy and low-lying nature of the Low Countries (compare later Froglander, frogland); in A. 10 perhaps with allusion to the supposed popularity among French people of frogs’ legs as a dish, and perhaps partly also on account of the shared initial consonant cluster in frog and French adjective; however, both senses could simply show narrowing of sense A. 8 to identify the inhabitants of countries which were near neighbours and frequent rivals of Britain.

  19. Good lord. I admire anyone who can plunge into such a swamp with enthusiasm; me, I wash my hands of it. But I thank you for laying out the froggy facts so conveniently!

  20. The OED3 editors get the credit, I think. The OED1/2 text was much shorter, though it contained the same basic ideas.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    David: In the standard language, Bub would be /bʊp/, no?

    No, the vowel is /uː/ (corresponding to the diphthongs of the dialects – [ʊɐ̯] and [ui̯] for instance). And I wouldn’t write /p/; I’d write /b/ and let the people in central and northern Germany apply final fortition afterwards. My sister actually laughs when she hears Land pronounced with /t/ on German TV.
    To make the vowel short, you’d need to spell the word with pp. Even p alone would be ambiguous, as seen from mit (short) and Brot (long).

Speak Your Mind