For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of meeting with Doug Harper and a handful of eager scholars to talk etymology, online, in our LEXinars. Doug and I plan and deliver a series of cozy online seminars in which we discuss etymology, cognates, historical roots, historical languages, Proto-Indo-European, reconstruction, attestation, and spelling (okay, that last one is more me than Doug). It’s mindblowing. And it’s hilarious, as real language study should be. Doug is one smart cookie, and, while this shouldn’t surprise me, he has a way with words. So along the way, he says stuff like this:
“The language has mud on it.”
“Latin is in its pupa in the Middle Ages.”
“Old English is like clay.”
“It’s like jumping from house to house through the neighborhood looking for a fugitive.”
“I’ve seen seven-year-olds take to it like it’s birthday cake.”
I can’t even write it all down. It’s epiphanic. This stuff makes me understand language better, know words more intimately. Doug has spent a lot of time with language, and has the mind to prove it. Not once have I come out of a 90-minute session stupider.
We talk about words and their relationships. We talk about the Online Etymology Dictionary, Doug’s website (which could just as easily have been a model railroad or a million-piece puzzle, but we’re glad it’s not). We read through entries together, clarifying their structure. I’ve learned that since Doug and I began orbiting each other a few years ago, he has included more Middle English examples in the dictionary’s entries, and has given more attention to spelling along the way.
I’m not gonna lie: it feels amazing to be part of this dictionary in this way, to have my thinking affect what ends up on this website that gets millions of hits every month, from all over the world. Not because it means I’m cool, but because “my thinking” is part of a global network of scholars thinking on these questions of word histories and word structures. Not because I have influence, but because the dictionary is an influenceable thing, responsive to evidence, informed by this living scholarship community as well as by the deep, well-researched historical sources Doug mines for the building blocks of his website.
It’s so cool.
Longtime readers of this space will recall that I have had several encounters wherein I have challenged something someone — an expert — said about language, and have been met with less-than-enthusiastic responses. The experts responded generally by reasserting their expertise and persisting in their misapprehensions. When I first contacted Doug a few years ago, however, he responded by asserting his non-expertise (“I’m a compiler, not a linguist”) and by being responsive to linguistic evidence laid out before him, even when it contradicted the lexicographical status quo. So, you know, that’s a genuinely scholarly response, right?
This spring, Doug and I are taking our show on the road. After two years of Etymology! weekend workshops in greater Philadelphia, we’ll be offering this third annual event — affectionately dubbed WordStock III — in greater Chicago (Bensenville, to be exact; see the registration information below), March 28-29, 2015. We hope to have — we are planning for — an audience with many new faces as well as seasoned participants.
This year, we’ll consider the question of time in etymology and in language itself. We’ll look at the past of the field, and at its present realities. We’ll consider why Latin cannot be confined to a single layer of English, and how French is unruly enough to have changed over the millennium over which English has borrowed from it. We’ll view the present day language as a snapshot, and we’ll posit a future both for English and for etymology as a field of study, one in which a global audience and digital connectivity will continue to play a role, and one in which rigor and precision cannot be compromised.
If you look up the name Douglas in the Online Etymology Dictionary, you will learn that it derives from a Gaelic compound meaning ‘dark water.’ Somehow, this fits my experience, given that it was from a conversation with Doug that I gleaned the phrase “a holler up the well” when referring to the study of word stories. The study of etymology, and Doug himself, are a lot like dark water. Not in a scary way, but in a deep and reflective way.
Okay, maybe a teeny tiny bit scary.
Come and join us.