The Psychological Toll of Etymological Research.

Christopher Culver had a recent post that intrigued me enough to share it here; there may not be many actual etymologists in the crowd who can actually answer his question, but the odds are certainly better than at most sites, and in any event his thoughts will probably be of interest to others. He says:

I’m not sure that etymological work is an entirely healthy field to be involved in psychologically. I have repeatedly found myself experiencing the following:

• I will wake up in the morning having dreamed that I solved some puzzle or another, but alas! it fades from memory too quickly for me to grasp exactly, making for a dour start to the day.
• Inversely, I find myself unable to fall asleep at night as my brain works obsessively on some word. After having lost track of certain insights because I fell asleep and then had forgotten them when I woke up, now I either keep a notepad besides the bed or even jump up and run to the computer at some unreasonable hour. (This is also hard on a spouse.)
• When I am searching for cognates of a given Mari item across other languages, and I open a dictionary of some language to search for an expected word form, there is a big risk that I am distracted by some other word on that dictionary page that might relate to another Mari item I am investigating. Ultimately I end up going on tangent after tangent, and I lose sight of whatever word I was originally working on. This might be blamed on the common inability to focus in our modern internet era, but I’m sure I would have suffered the same thing back in the era of when etymologists just kept everything on note cards.

I would be curious to know how many other linguists experience these same frustrations.

Comments

  1. I’m not a linguist (by degree or by trade), but am on a lifelong quest to never stop learn languages. I’m currently learning a heritage language and doing OPOL, only speaking this L2 with my children. I find that there are tons of things I want to be able to say, but don’t know how to. This can happen at any time of day, but seems to especially happen as I’m falling asleep. I often times find myself getting up, adding the word or phrase to my master list, going to grab a dictionary or two, and I end up several hours later at my computer with dozens of tabs open and at least a dozen dictionaries beside me, not all of which are for my current L2/heritage language.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    What is OPOL?

    And the link to your website doesn’t work.

  3. If you google OPOL, the first hit is “OPOL, One Person, One Language.”

  4. This syndrome is not specific to etymologists but probably rather to people who are deeply interested in something. It appears to describe an aspect of my relationship with biophysics and John Muir or Peter Aschwanden’s relationship to Volkswagen repair

    http://i.pinimg.com/736x/f9/6f/9c/f96f9cfd4bf8978ae0b49251c50074ac.jpg

  5. Good point!

  6. This syndrome is not specific to etymologists …
    … open a dictionary of some language to search for an expected word form, there is a big risk that I am distracted by some other word on that dictionary page …

    That certainly captures how I get sucked into dictionaries. (I’m not an etymologist either.) Much less of a risk with internet search, because you get only the word you ask for. Hmm opportunity to make a website with that full page opening experience?

  7. Etymology Online is somewhat like that, because searches are full-text, not just keywords, so you get all kinds of random results as well as the one you want.

    I think it has to do with solving puzzles. People can be deeply interested in a subject, but if there’s no puzzle-solving aspect, it isn’t likely to keep them from sleep.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    Opening old-fashioned encyclopedias is like that. You find something completely different, or you keep reading down the page to the next shining thing, find a new clue to check and then repeat. I read the entire 20-volume >Store Norske Leksikon (the Norwegian National Encyclopedia) in that haphazard way when it came in its next-to-last print edition in the eighties. Reading Wikipedia isn’t that different. It’s just much less likely to lead you somewhere completely unexpected.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Reading Wikipedia isn’t that different. It’s just much less likely to lead you somewhere completely unexpected.

    You’re not doing it right, then. I’ve been led to quite unexpected places by Wikipedia, TV Tropes, RationalWiki and even Memory Alpha…

  10. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, I don’t say I don’t often end up in unexpected places. I just don’t always end up in unexpected places, and when I do, the path to get there has usually been laid out by less arbitrary mechanisms than alphabetization or bookbinding

  11. January First-of-May says:

    You’re not doing it right, then. I’ve been led to quite unexpected places by Wikipedia, TV Tropes, RationalWiki and even Memory Alpha…

    Everything2 (…is it still going on?) is particularly likely to lead one down unexpected places, due to a list of several “related” subjects at the bottom of every entry.

    They’re probably still more related than “just happened to be the nearby in the alphabet”, however.

  12. Rodger C says:

    Opening old-fashioned encyclopedias is like that. You find something completely different, or you keep reading down the page to the next shining thing, find a new clue to check and then repeat.

    This is me and the Encyclopaedia Britannica at age 12 and for several years thereafter. It was the 1960s equivalent of websurfing. One learned of the existence of whole unsuspected fields of knowledge. (And I still own that EB.)

  13. I still miss our EB from (I think) 1964; I used to sit and read it by the hour. And it came with a two-volume dictionary with a multilingual supplement, which of course was catnip to me.

  14. Rodger C says:

    Ah, yes! Alas, I somehow got separated from that dictionary. It was the one I’ve mentioned that called the Swedish common gender the “nonneuter.”

    The languages, IIRC, were French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, and Yiddish. It took me a few years to realize that their selection had to do with the history of American immigration; a good while longer before it clicked that there was a specific connection with the fact that the EB was published in Chicago.

  15. Huh, I’d never thought of that. And as I recall the foreign words were provided with pronunciations, which I loved.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    Rodger C.: This is me and the Encyclopaedia Britannica at age 12 and for several years thereafter.

    Yeah. It started almost as soon as I could read, with the 1960ies edition that my father had ordered on subscription with his first salary. Or something. What happened in in the 80ies was that my parents ordered a new edition, also this on subscription, and for a few years we got a brand new volume in the mail four times a year. I waited eagerly for each volume, and when it arrived, I devoured it.

    When my wife and I got established in the late nineties one of the first things we ordered was yet another print edition of Store Norske. We knew digital media and the Internet were coming fast, but we still couldn’t imagine a home without it. That turned out to be the last edition to be printed. It has a prominent place on the shelf, but now I rarely think of consulting it.

  17. I have had etymologies come to me in dreams…

    There is a variety of the plant Cucumis melo (whose cultivars also include the muskmelon) that is grown in the region of Urfa in Upper Mesopotamia. (According to this study, the variety is Cucumis melo var. cantalupensis.) The fruit is used when young and green. It is like a firm, sweet cucumber. The flesh is less watery than a cucumber, and the skin is slightly velvety. There are videos of this vegetable on Youtube here and here. I usually chop it up and combine it with some chopped onion and skinned, seeded, chopped tomatoes and some mint or dill to make a salad. Or you can just eat it out of hand with some cheese for breakfast. In the Kurmanji of the region, it is called şelengo (with the occasional variant şilingo). It is very plentiful in late spring and early summer.

    Last year, in şelengo season, I had been pondering the origin of this word at every meal, when a suggestion came to me in a vivid dream—it is hard to describe how a dream about words can be vivid, but it was. The Greek word for the vegetable often called the Armenian cucumber in American farmers’ markets (C. melo var. flexuosus) is ξυλάγγουρο, ksila(n)guro (ξύλο “wood, stick” + αγγούρι “cucumber”). Occasionally in a big sack of şelengo there will be one that looks more like an Armenian cucumber than the other şelengo. Perhaps the Kurmanji word was a local adaptation of a form of this Greek word. The treatment of initial ξ as ş can be seen—in Turkish at least—in the word for the traditional grain measure şinik, an adapation of Greek χοῖνιξ. I have no idea whether this etymology of şelengo is correct, but I saw it (heard it) in a dream.

  18. Certainly sounds plausible to me!

  19. in the word for the traditional grain measure şinik, an adapation of Greek χοῖνιξ

    Actually, I see that’s not an example. I was trying to come up with a parallel but that’s not it…

  20. David Marjanović says:

    …unless you assume metathesis. Are there other examples of that?

  21. David Marjanović says:

    This is me and the Encyclopaedia Britannica at age 12 and for several years thereafter. It was the 1960s equivalent of websurfing.

    I did that once with a no-name German Lexikon – not as expansive as the EB or the Brockhaus, but still lengthy enough to contain illustrations of the life cycle of various parasitic flatworms in its 12 volumes.

  22. My parents had a 13-volume Polish encyclopedia published 1962-1970. I fell absolutely in love with it. When I knew enough English, I started visiting the library of the US Embassy in Warsaw after school; they had the EB there. In the reading-room of my secondary school there were also some old encyclopedias, for example the 18 volumes of Orgelbranda Encyklopedja Powszechna (1898-1912). Outdated in every respect but with large lithographic colour plates showing which were real works of art.

  23. For me, that was Knaur’s one-volume Lexikon, which we had at home. Published probably in the early 70s. I always thought I’d buy one of those multi-volume encyclopedias when I’d finally settle down, but when we bought our house, the internet age had arrived and buying an obsolescent general-purpose reference work published on dead trees stopped making sense. (I still prefer reference works on paper in areas where I use them frequently and the information doesn’t get old so quickly, e.g. dictionaries.)

  24. Yes, I’ll never forget visiting a library sale sometime in the ’90s where they had several sets of the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition for ridiculously low prices. I’d wanted such a set for decades; in the early 1970s I had to choose between spending my discretionary $50 (a substantial amount of money in those days) on an EB11 or a Big Liddell, and after much agonizing I chose the latter. But now I realized there was just no point lugging it around and making room for it on my shelves. I can still feel the heft of the dusty, tempting volumes in my hands…

  25. Chris Culver: I would be curious to know how many other linguists experience these same frustrations.

    If they don’t, they don’t deserve to be called linguists.

  26. I encountered my first multivolumed rabbit-hole when I was seven, recuperating from pneumonia. It was the twenty-volume Books of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia for older children. It’s the pleasantest childhood memory I have, the beginning of my multi-subject mind.

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