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Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone 1st Edition

3.1 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195387070
ISBN-10: 0195387074
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  • Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone
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Editorial Reviews

Review

Prof. Liberman's excellent book would make a fine Christmas present for anyone interested in the history of the English language. Irish Times,

About the Author


Anatoly Liberman is Professor of the Humanities at the University of Minnesota. For the past seventeen years, he has been working on a new etymological dictionary of English.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 13, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195387074
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195387070
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 1 x 5.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,033 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book makes one realize that there are two kinds of etymologies: the one that tries to explain terms like "hackney" and "jack-o-lantern"; and the one that tries to explain terms like "hand" and "bring". The first makes you search through medieval tomes and books about ancient crafts; the second causes one to delve into ablaut series and next to unpronounceable Proto-Indo-European (PIE) words that look more like formulas (which they partly are). The first yields a number of anecdotal and often amusing stories, the second dry-as-dust formal word derivations. The author, although acknowledging the existence of the second, is clearly much more interested in the first; PIE figures only sporadically in the text and does not even occur in the index.

This approach makes the book a juicy read, especially on "funny" English words; the sections on ablaut series etc. lack the same flourish and are mercifully small. Yet even in the juicy part there are quite a number of promising
paragraphs that lead nowhere. For example, on page 101 we learn that "Cockney" has an interesting origin, but that origin is never revealed.

Much too much to my taste is attributed to sound symbolism (page 212: the b in "to beat" is suggested to be "imitative (echoic)" of the beating action; the argument is that out of 115 synonyms of "beat, strike" about 20 begin with a b) or explained as "baby words" (pig - big - bag for "swollen things"). I think such claims are warranted only when supported by similar phenomena from several non-Indo-European languages. I personally cannot find back any of these sound symbolisms in Hebrew, the only Non-IE language I know well. Latin "capere" (to take), Finnish "kappan" (to seize) and Hebr.
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I've always had an interest in this subject. I had not studied Greek or Latin in school, but should have. The book was informative to me, a layman, and helped in my understanding of English words and how they changed over the centuries. I am familiar with Spanish and French derivatives and the book informed my of the many words that are of German and even Viking ancestry. I also learned how long the science of etymology has been pursed and all the difficulties and ambiguities that come along in the process. The biggest problem I had was the author's use of esoteric Old English or German letters in the spelling of words that are or possibly are etymons for "modern" English words. I did indeed learn that etymology is a vast subject indeed and I find myself analyzing words that I come across now with more understanding of where they originated.
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Format: Paperback
As someone who reads etymological dictionaries (English, French and Italian) for fun I was expecting something more upbeat. This is an incredibly interesting topic - tracing a word's history is like tracing the culture of a nation. I am an academic myself, so I wasn't expecting or wanting this book to be dumbed down, but I found it extremely dry - so dry in fact that I quickly began flitting through the book in the hope of finding some interesting insights. If you've never read anything before on etymology or etymologists, then you might find it worthwhile buying the book. If not ...
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I heard about it in an interview on the radio and was all excited. You don't get a good overview, the print does not help. It would have helped the subject matter to have it better presented. Although this generally interests me, I found it not very readable.
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Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone
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