Sunday, 26 July 2009

good etymology books

dayna asked for recommendations for good books about etymology aimed at the general public. I haven't read it, but this book sounds good:

Katherine Barber. Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs: And Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language

It sounds entertaining, and Barber is a lexicographer so she knows what she's talking about (I'm guessing four of the six words are porcelain, porcupine, porpoise, aardvark).

This book might also be of interest, altho it's not specifically about etymology:

Erin McKean. Weird and Wonderful Words

Can anyone suggest some more?


bulbul said...

Anatoly Liberman's "Word Origins ... and how we know them" is one I would definitely recommend. More of a theoretical discussion of etymology, it not only contains tons and tons of word and their origins, but also explains the methods used in tracing them.

_duif said...

This is just out and looks very nice: Philip Durkin - The Oxford guide to etymology.

Drew said...

Patricia T. O'Conner's Origin of the Specious is quite good, though it's less centered on etymology than it is debunking boneheaded grammatical rules and urban legends about the history of language.

Glen Gordon said...

A title like "Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs" makes me cringe. Sounds more like a light-hearted coffee-table book (which is then likely chalked full of factual errors for the sake of its real aim, humour) than a useful etymology book for the layman.

I think the fatal flaw here is the phrase 'aimed at the general public', as if we the people are all the one and the same disinterested flake that needs to be talked down to in order to successfully receive information at all. I know the History Channel markets this way but it also shamelessly misinforms its viewers with emotive sensationalism in the process.

Ideally, a book 'aimed at the general public' might be one that doesn't sacrifice facts for entertainment, but also presents facts in a most intuitive layout. A kind of information-at-an-immediate-glance type of book but also replete with references if needed.

In this way, a book isn't just a book for "the public" but one that remains useful for specialists as well. We have to ask why it is that information is obfuscated so greatly in technical books that we even need to distinguish between "the public" (with scraps of information thrown at them now and then like stray mutts) and "the ivory tower" (who make mazes out of information using footnotes and pedantic overkill)?

Just some crazy observations I had on information sharing in our society. Nevermind. Carry on.

bulbul said...


good point. It's no coincidence that the "aimed at the general public" books are usually written by a member of the general public, like a journalist or a professional knowitall (Bryson comes to mind), not a professional linguist. And that's something that only happens in linguistics - I have yet to see a book on some aspects of mathematics or physics aimed at laymen written by a non-mathematician or non-physicist.

goofy said...

By "aimed at the general public" I meant "for the non-linguist" - people who want to learn something about etymology but aren't already familiar with the terminology and methodology. Altho I haven't read them, the two books I mentioned are written by lexicographers, so I have some faith in them. I wouldn't want to recommend a book on any subject that wasn't written by a specialist.

_duif said...

(I'm guessing four of the six words are porcelain, porcupine, porpoise, aardvark);

actually, they are porcelain, screw, soil, porpoise, root, swain; root is a lame one though. To quote from the book:

The verb 'root' in the sense of rummaging around, which was written 'wroot' until about 1600, was originally used only of pigs grubbing around looking for food with their snouts. This goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, but it wasn't until the 19th century that 'root around' started to be used of human beings.

And that's that.
The Liberman and the Durkin already mentioned are much more useful I think.

goofy said...

hm, thanks _duif. That's a shame. Of all the books mentioned so far, the Durkin sounds like the one I would want.

Moturam's Ahalya said...

How about 'Red Herrings and White Elephants' by Albert Jack. Although its main focus is the phrases and sayings we use almost everyday.