Nitpicky? Hell yes.
. . . I asked Liberman what he loved about etymology. “Love is the wrong word,” he says. “Etymology is not a child or a woman. So there is nothing to love it for. It’s the excitement of discovery. Whether you discover a new particle in physics or the origin of a word, it’s really the same thing. It’s the excitement of the chase, the hunter’s feeling that you had your prey, and that you succeeded!”It’s a pleasure heightened further by the joy of saving things from history. “One of the great things I am doing,” Liberman tells me, “is that I will return from oblivion so many works and so many names that deserve recognition.”Take dwarf, which Liberman considers one of his crowning achievements. For over a century, everyone in the English-speaking world believed it was a word carried over from Indo-European. But Liberman knew that every Germanic language except Gothic had a related word, like dwerg and dwaas, which means things like foolish or crazy.One day, Liberman was looking at an 1884 edition of Friedrich Kluge’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (he has all twenty-four editions) when he saw something incredible. Kluge had made the same connection, tracing dwarf to a Germanic origin, but in later editions gave it up for the more popular Indo-European theory. Suddenly, Liberman knew he had made a great rediscovery.“When I saw Kluge’s dwesk,” he wrote, “everything in my ideas about Germanic dwarves fell into place. According to the most ancient beliefs, supernatural beings brought on diseases. Language has retained many traces of those superstitions: god is related to giddy, elfshot means lumbago (cf. OE ylfen ‘raving mad’), and troll, most likely, has the same root as droll. The dwarves, before they became anthropomorphic, must have shared their evil power with the gods, elves, and trolls.”Such are the joys of discovery, of the chase, of words, and of tracing their threads back through time. It’s what makes this work so exciting and so important. It reminds us that we are the last link in a chain that reaches further back than we can see or remember or imagine. These words are a window into worlds that have vanished but to which we remain connected. They let us hear the voices of those who came before us, whose words and ideas and beliefs lurk in our minds even today.[Continues]