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Czech Teymology

Etymologist by Night

The library building may be open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, but being a librarian involves a set of skills that aren’t always easy to switch off. When I’m not being a librarian in the workplace, I find that I’m most often engaged as an etymologist for friends and family. In other words, I’m the go-to person when someone wants to know the history of a word beyond the simple definition. Luckily for them, I find etymology, or the history of words, fascinating.

There are a lot of interesting books and resources about the history of words, phrases, and their uses. Stay with me, I know dictionaries aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but there’s some fascinating, occasionally sordid and often amusing, history behind the things we say. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, is arguably the unshakable bastion propping up the English language, the last word on all English definitions. The OED has been around forever, right? And is the product of the most learned, scholarly minds in academia? No, and…qualified yes. In fact, the OED project began in 1857 and took seventy years to complete, included the contributions of tens of thousands of people, and organized the English language into 414,825 precise definitions (there are over 615,000 word forms now by the way, with new words added every year). However, one of the largest contributors never joined the team of professors at Oxford University, despite numerous invitations to do so, choosing instead to submit all his entries by mail. Lo and behold, this man, important contributor to our literary history, was clinically insane, a murderer, locked up in England’s harshest asylum for criminal lunatics. The whole tale is spun out in Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” Want to know more? Winchester delves deeper into the brilliant minds that crafted the OED, offering little known anecdotes (who knew “marzipan” would be so difficult to define?) and interesting bits of knowledge in his book, “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

My favorite on-the-go quick reference for etymology is a website called the Online Etymology Dictionary, found by visiting These folks really do their research, and their word histories are legitimate enough to be quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Online Etymology Dictionary is an optimal way to satisfy your curiosity on a whim, and also to settle friendly arguments about word usage (I’m not the only person who has these arguments, right?)

While the Online Etymology Dictionary covers many, many words, you’re not as likely to find the history of phrases catalogued. Why in the world to we say “it’s raining cats and dogs” during a heavy rain? To learn more about the etymology of idioms and other phrases, try “Common Phrases and Where They Come From” by Myron Korach. Spoiler: “let her rip” does not mean what you think it means.

Speaking of cats and dogs, there are an awful lot of words and phrases in English relating to animals. If this piques the interest of all you animal lovers, check out “Dog Days and Dandelions: A Lively Guide to the Animal Meanings Behind Everyday Words” by Martha Barnette, or “Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, and Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language” by Katherine Barber.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you might be interested in a couple more etymological honorable mentions. “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: a Writer’s Guide to Getting it Right” by Bill Bryson is a solid fixture for word-nerds, and is a witty work Bryson fans won’t want to miss; this was actually his first book. “Word Mysteries & Histories, From Quiche to Humble Pie” by Robert Claiborne is also worth a look, plus there are illustrations.

So, why care about etymology? If you’ve read this far, then I probably don’t need to convince you of the importance and fun of learning for learning’s sake. In addition, being able to whip out interesting facts about word histories will impress your smart friends, and earn you laughs at parties. Priorities, people. If you want a hand finding these or other books, just ask a librarian. Or, feel free to browse the 423 call number section on the Mezzanine level of the library.

Liz Reed is an Adult and Information Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Liz’s column in the April 14, 2016 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Alli Palmgren

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