Last year I posted about Allan Metcalf’s Lingua Franca piece on the journal Comments on Etymology; now Metcalf has a Tablet story about the guy who writes it, “Gerald Leonard Cohen, professor in the department of arts, languages, and philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and grand impresario of American etymologists.” Cohen’s lived in Missouri for years, but he grew up in New York and “got a good start by majoring in Russian civilization as an undergraduate at Dartmouth”:
With a Reynolds Fellowship for foreign study from Dartmouth, after finishing his bachelor’s he spent a year at Oxford, earning a diploma in Slavonic studies.
He then embarked on a doctorate in Slavic linguistics at Columbia University, for which degree he had to demonstrate proficiency in French, German, Russian, and two other Slavic languages. His dissertation, finished in 1971, was The Stress of the Russian Short Adjective: A Diachronic Study. He modestly admits that for a while he was the world’s foremost expert on the stress of the Russian short adjective—modestly, because that’s not a topic crowded with experts.
Meanwhile, with his graduate coursework finished, in 1968 he went to what might be considered the antipodes of Manhattan: Rolla. “I was looking for a suburban-type lifestyle—trees, grass, no crime,” he explained. “And the move to Rolla also offered me the chance to teach several languages.”
At the university there ever since, he has taught general linguistics and Russian, French, German, and occasionally Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And he began his apprenticeship in etymology. “Starting in the 1970s and continuing for eight years or so,” he has written, “I made a concerted effort to study as many languages as possible each day. The key to this effort was consistency.” Each day he would sit down with a pile of books about different languages—dictionaries and grammars, for the most part. And “each day I would try to learn something about a variety of languages, even if it was just one or two words per language, and hope that various insights would emerge from the effort.” At the peak of his endeavors, he relates, he was looking at 20 to 30 different languages per day.
I admire that man! And there’s lots of interesting etymological tidbits in the article; read the whole thing. (Thanks for the link, Paul and Kobi!)