One of my regular diversions is checking the “Random books from my library” list on the lower right and visiting any author pages that I think might be obscure enough to have information missing (which, given my collection, is a lot of author pages). I’ve gotten very good at googling up birth/death dates, information on colleges and spouses, and so on, and I take great pleasure in adding them to LibraryThing so the information will be readily accessible; in a way, I feel it helps these forgotten authors to live on. Sometimes I pull off a real coup, like finding that the mysterious “Lee Eun” who coauthored my First Book of Korean was actually Un Yi (1897–1970), Crown Prince and the last surviving son of His Late Majesty Emperor Kojong. (How he came to write an introduction to Korean I still don’t know.) And sometimes I run across a man so remarkable I’m glad to have acquired one of his books; such a man is Louis Jay Herman, “Linguist And a Devoted Man of Letters” as the NY Times obituary calls him (it’s by the best obit writer America ever produced, the superb Robert McG. Thomas, 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives, who also did the best weather stories I’ve ever read). I have Herman’s Dictionary of Slavic Word Families, an amazing book that I knew I had to have as soon as I saw it at the Strand: it contains, as the subtitle says, Groups of Related Words in Russian, Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian, for each root lining up first the root word and then derivatives with equivalent prefixes in each language, giving the meaning of each and in the Notes at the end of each root explaining whichever semantic developments Herman found most interesting or unpredictable. I happily paid $15 for it in 1994; it now costs considerably more, but I still am amazed that I am the only LT member with a copy. (More than one visitor to my various dwellings has gasped enviously on looking through it.)
At any rate, the obit makes clear that this is a man who truly loved languages:
Mr. Herman discovered his aptitude for languages at Friends Seminary, a Quaker high school in his native Manhattan. He later received intensive linguistic training at Cornell and was an Army interpreter in Europe in World War II; he did not seem to know how to stop acquiring languages.
He kept on learning them during his years at New York University, while earning a master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism, while working as an associate editor at The New Leader and even after becoming a translator at the United Nations. By the time he finished, he had mastered more than 25 languages, a feat that seemed all the more remarkable because Mr. Herman, who worked exclusively on written documents at the United Nations, generally learned to speak them so well that he got the accents as well as the vocabularies down pat.
And he had a second career as “one of the most indefatigable letter writers to The New York Times”:
When an article in The Times noted that words like “charisma,” “pragmatist” and “demagogue” were of Greek origin, for example, Mr. Herman hastened to correct the implication that Greek imports were all “polysyllabic mouthfuls,” and ascribed Greek parentage to such ordinary, everyday words as “air,” “box,” “cane” and “chair.”
A mere dateline, on an article from Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia in 1988, was enough to set off Mr. Herman against “some cartographic czar” who had decreed that the long-sanctioned “Tiflis” should be replaced by the “jaw-breaking” native version. What next, he wondered? “Will such traditional names as Moscow, Prague, Naples and Cologne soon vanish to make way for indigenous Moskva, Warszawa, Praha, Napoli and Koln?”
Mr. Herman caught so many errors in William Safire’s “On Language” column in the Sunday magazine that Mr. Safire named him the “capo di tutti capi” of the Gotcha! Gang, which Mr. Herman cherished as the ulimate accolade.
Yet another of those people I wish I had known.