I’m in a bit of a stretch of neglected dictionaries here. The last Dictionary of the Week was the Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary I’d picked up at a used bookstore or something and never used; this week, it’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Bill Woo, the same professor who recommended Fowler’s, recommended this book. Which I have also never used. Partly because every time I open it, I get confused and close it again. Time to conquer that fear.
I opened the dictionary to the page with the entry for oubliette. I’ve actually heard this word–it was in a show that I was in several years ago–but I didn’t remember the definition. Time to learn something! The dictionary tells me it’s a word from Medieval French, which came from the Old French oublier, to forget, which in turn came from the Latin word oblitus, which also brought you oblivious. (But not obliterate, which has a different ancestry.)
Oh, you wanted the meaning? Nope. For that, we must turn to the trusty red dictionary. An oubliette is a dungeon accessible only by a trap door in the ceiling. Which makes sense, now that I know the origin. It’s a place where you can put someone and forget about them.
This book is not for definitions. It’s right there on the spine–this is a dictionary for word origins.
My problem is, I’m not totally sure why I need to know word origins. I like them. The fact that oubliette comes from a word for forget might help me remember what it means, the next time it comes up in conversation. But then, I knew that just from knowing the modern French word oublier.
The very next entry is ouch. You probably think you know what that means, but unless you are very knowledgeable about material culture, you are probably wrong. It’s a clasp or buckle. The Old High German nusca or nuscha gave rise to the Old French nusche or nousche, which brought to you the Middle English nouche, which–as things do–morphed from a nouche to an ouche which finally led to the English word ouch. The red dictionary says it’s pronounced the same way as OUCH!
Reading the entries is a challenge in itself. The first entry for the second meaning of net contains this alarming sentence: “OE net, is akin to OFris -net, OS netti, OHG nezzi, MHG netze, G Netz, Go nati, MD nette, D net, ON net; cf L nassa (? for *natta), a fish-basket, nodus, a knot, and Skt nahyata, he binds.” Golly. It’s telling you that this word came from Old English and is related to words from Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Middle High German, German, Gothic, Medieval Dutch, Dutch, and Old Norse. Oh, and Latin and Sanskrit.
I find this sort of trivia delightful, but it still feels like trivia. I don’t know that it informs how I use the language today. Maybe it should. Maybe someday I’ll be way more erudite than I am and find it useful in my work to know the origin of the word lose (it takes most of a page to explain, but I will share the fun fact that lose shares a root with analyze–sort of like “unloose,” as in unloosing something’s meaning). For now, though, I’m ok with just looking up the definition in the regular old dictionary.
Dictionary Stats: Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
author: Eric Partridge
date: 1958 (and falling apart)
publisher: The Macmillan Company
length: 970 pp.
guide words on p. 613: shandy, beer and either lemonade or ginger-beer, shortens shandy gaff: o.o.o [that means "of obscure origin"] ? from low London slang shant o’ gatter, a pot of beer, with London slang gaff (as in ‘a penny gaff’) substituted for gatter. share, [ok, this entry goes on for most of a page. fun fact: it relates to a lot of words that have to do with "divide or separate, by cutting."]
Introduction: My, he gets feisty in the “How to Use This Dictionary” section. He’s talking about the choices he made on how to write things in our alphabet: “The transliteration of Greek words, in particular, has been more exact than in several dictionaries one might, but does not, name…. In pre-Medieval Latin words I have retained i and u, as in Iulius, ML Julius, and uinum, ML vinum, for reasons too obvious to be enumerated.” Oh, right! They’re so obvious! This confirms my suspicion that this dictionary is not meant for me. I wonder if his editor tried to argue on that, or if these were really considered to be obvious in 1958?
obscenities: Yes! With some of the letters bleeped out! Cover your sensitive eyes. The entry for c**t starts right off with “ME cunte“…so I think we know what word you’re talking about there, buddy. But this bleeping is explained in the f**k entry: “F**k shares with c**t two distinctions: they are the only two SE [Standard English] words excluded from all general and etym dictionaries since C18 [the 18th century] and the only two SE words that, outside of medical and other official or semi official reports and learnèd papers, still cannot be printed in full anywhere within the British Commonwealth of Nations.”