Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Oxford Guide to Etymology

A while ago I asked about good etymology books. After thinking about it for… a year, I've got Philip Durkin's The Oxford Guide to Etymology (thanks _duif). This book promises to investigate "every aspect of where words come from and how they change."

Dr Durkin investigates folk etymology and other changes which words undergo in everyday use. He shows how language families are established, how words in different languages can have a common ancester, and the ways in which the latter can be distinguished from words introduced through language contact. He examines the etymologies of the names of people and places. His focus is on English but he draws many examples from languages such as French, German, and Latin which cast light on the pre-histories of English words.

Quite a tall order, and I'm looking forward to it. I've just read the section on the etymological fallacy, where he talks about objections to the modern meaning of meticulous ("painstakingly careful"). Because the word is derived from Latin metus "fear", it was thought that meticulous should convey some sense of fearfulness. (Bill Bryson, in Troublesome Words, still seems to believe this).

To show how silly this idea is, Durkin uses the example of deer, which used to refer to any animal (and still does in German and Dutch), and was narrowed to refer only to Cervidæ in Early Modern English. If you're using etymology to define meticulous, why not deer as well?

No comments :