Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Browsing Skeat, Or, "Click ; see Clack"

A few weeks ago, I came away with a copy of The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, by Walter Skeat. It is said to have been a book that James Joyce enjoyed browsing in, and I can see why. It has among its merits a light weight, making it easy to hold, and a pattern of discrete pieces of information, generally linked backward and forward, so that one can browse happily for as little or as much time as happens to be available. (Another book I bought at the same table, The Reformation, by Diarmaid Macculloch, is likewise fascinating, but it is heavy, and demands long stretches of attention.)

A couple of peculiarities struck me early on. First, organization of related words under a root, so that Scribe, in the main alphabetic order, is followed by ascribe, circumscribe, conscript, and on down to superscription  and transcribe. The words in the sub-sequence are given as here, not capitalized. Likewise Sooth is followed by absent, present, represent, sooth, and soothsay.

Second, the entries of the form "x; see y". So Scribe immediately follows "Scribble ; see Scribe". Some of these catch the eye from half a page away, as for example "Click ; see Clack". The latter he derives from the Middle English clacken, relating it to Crack, and also to words in Icelandic, Dutch, Irish, and Greek. A couple I noticed today seem to say something about fashion: "Thong ; see Twinge" and "Trousers, Trousseau ; see Torture". However, Skeat is not thinking about the sacrifices made to look good, but about roots: thong and twinge he traces back to the Old Friesic twingan, to force or constrain; trousers, trousseau and torture come back to roots meaning to twist.

I used to forget the components that went into the word "whiskey"; but now that I have seen Skeat relate "beath" to the Greek "bios", I won't again soon.

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