PIE at OnEtDict.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary’s Facebook feed, PIE in the RAW:

In reference to the post below. Here are two entries from two of the books I often turn to for information on Proto-Indo-European roots. The words, one Greek, one Latin, are presumed to be from the same Proto-Indo-European root. The first is from Robert Beekes’ “Etymological Dictionary of Greek” (2010), the other is from Michiel de Vaan’s “Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages” (2008).

Both are from the same publisher. The two authors often cite one another. Yet their entries don’t quite agree on many points, even on whether the PIE root is a noun or a verb. This is not a flaw; this is the state of a young discipline built from echoes.

This is the starting point from which I begin to attempt to translate PIE information into the English that can be understood by the average intelligent person using the internet. As you can see, I leave out 90% of what’s in there. And the rest of it I greatly simplify. What you end up with on etymonline is like a 6-year-old’s drawing of the “Mona Lisa.” And these two sources are themselves already simplified and smoothed as dictionary entries when compared to the articles and books they cite.

If you click on the photos at the post, you can see images of Beekes’ entry for κλεῖς and de Vaan’s for clāvis, both meaning ‘key’; it’s an enjoyable comparison. And if you notice a certain whiff of despair in the final paragraph, it’s much stronger in a previous post:

If I don’t quote the e-mails, you won’t believe me. If I do quote them, even anonymously, I risk shaming, privately, the people who wrote them, who, for all I know, linger here and will recognize their words. I wouldn’t do that.

But DAMN people are stupid. […] I’d grown up reading some of the great vulgarisateurs of the 20th century: H.G. Wells, Carl Sagan, George Gamow. It seemed to me they never talked down to the audience.

Now I feel like the bottom’s dropped out, and I don’t know where the middle is anymore. I get letters from people who are “surprised and disappointed” that I don’t have an entry for ______, which is a word I do have an entry for, but they’ve spelled it wrong.

I get letters from people who plainly can’t read the entry, who don’t know the difference between “from” and “means” and don’t understand parenthetical expressions. Who ask me to explain things that aren’t there. And then after a 12-e-mail back and forth reveal they’ve got a higher English degree than I ever will.

The PIE stuff on the site, as dumbed-down as I’ve made it, seems to only confuse people. More and more I just want to strip it out. The need to understand historical deep time and the fact that the past was not the present requires a little study and a little thought, and that seems out of reach of even the educated. To get the most out of etymonline you need a broad view of the past, an H.G. Wells view, but even the students of history now seem to know only one sliver of the past, and that only in terms of some present problem or grievance.

Fortunately, there are a slew of supportive comments, and I’ll add mine: you’re doing great, keep up the good work! (And I thank whatever gods there be that my site is obscure enough I don’t get that kind of mail.)


  1. Of course, the people who understand the entries perfectly because they have elementary-school-levels of reading comprehension or better aren’t inclined to send complaints.

  2. ə de vivre says

    Wow, I’d always assumed that etymonline was the work of an institution or a publishing house. I’m amazed it’s the work of one person (and a little concerned about what will happen to such a great resource should he lose interest or cease to pay his server bill for whatever reason—oh, the impermanence of the digital age!)

  3. David Marjanović says

    Both are from the same publisher. The two authors often cite one another.

    And they’re both at the U of Leiden, where they had, if I’m not gravely mistaken, the same thesis supervisor (Frederik Kortlandt). That they disagree so much is an encouraging sign!

  4. Christopher Culver says

    You are mistaken, David. The late Robert Beekes was nearly a decade older than Kortlandt, and his thesis (a celebrated work on the PIE laryngeals in Greek) was finished while Kortlandt was still an undergraduate.

    Beekes also retired some time ago and fell rather outside of the swing of things, so it is questionable how much of the current Leiden-school groupthink can be ascribed to him as well.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    # If only Bill Gates would invent a way to make an automated reply to an e-mail BEFORE it is sent to you. An automated preply? #

    Fabulous idea !

  6. >bar, bolt, secondarily rowing bench

    I wonder whether the Greeks originally made oarsmen sit on something more like a thwart.

  7. # If only Bill Gates would invent a way to make an automated reply to an e-mail BEFORE it is sent to you. An automated preply? #

    I don’t know who invented it, but the thing actually exists, so far in a limited scope. First, there were automatic replies “I am out of office enjoying my vacay. Back next Monday, hope y’all die.” But now (within the limits of my work email, which by the way, has a number 365 in it’s name to remind us that there is no escape (they forgot the leap day)) when you only enter the email address in the “To:” field the stupid thing pops-up and twists your nose.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Oh… yes, thanks, I had completely forgotten I actually knew anything about Beekes as a person…! He retired soon after getting that etymological dictionary of Greek out.

  9. Douglas Harper has officially abandoned his efforts on PIE: “The PIE currently in etymonline represents various stage of giving up on the whole thing, except in the broadest, most general way. … the people using etymonline kept pestering me for it, so I buckled. … It would be pointless to try to rewrite etymonline every year to chase PIE scholarship’s tail …”

    I for one support that decision. There should be no shame in recognizing that you bit off more than you can chew, nor pride in crying “Push on!” when you’re waist deep in the big muddy. For basic information about PIE, beginners should go to AHD, which has been free online for a lot of years now; anyone who wants more than that should be able to do their own research, and Harper even gives them some starting points on his sources page. He’s unwilling to keep putting out a 6-year-old’s drawing of the Mona Lisa? Good for him.

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