There’s an interesting interview at Drunken Koudou with historian and author Douglas Harper. Harper is the creator of an old favourite website of mine, the Online Etymology Dictionary (aka Etymonline), which offers a wealth of succinct and well-researched word histories.
Useful for quick reference, fun and fascinating for deeper delving, it’s quite the rabbit hole for language lovers. If you haven’t, try it: enter a word, any word, and see where it takes you. I’ve sprinkle-linked a few examples in the text below.
Recalling how it all started, Harper says:
I wanted a free, thorough, reliable place to go online to find the standard etymologies of English words. Or to discover that their origin was mysterious. I went looking for such a thing online, and didn’t find it. So I started to make it.
This generous act became a prolonged and time-consuming project that has kept Harper busy for years. (He’s currently expanding the dictionary, as well as re-writing and copy editing the entire thing.) In the interview, he describes the website’s development and how he goes about composing a new entry. He talks about the fluidity of language and words and how etymology illuminates their ever-shifting identities. Asked about using words “in the right way”, he responds:
I’m always glad when people want to use words carefully and with an awareness that a word means one thing and not another. But people will use words as they choose, and they always have. In English perhaps more than most tongues, there isn’t a bright shining line around “the right way” to use the words. In fact, etymology dictionaries are testimonials to ways people have stretched, bent, and mangled the language to suit their needs. Language is for people, not pedants.
The emphasis is mine, added in hearty agreement. You can read the rest of the interview here.
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On a related note, Language Hat wrote last week about the origin of the word wanton and its unusual prefix wan-; the comments include some discussion about how best to abbreviate “Online Etymology Dictionary”. (OED is too closely associated with the Oxford English Dictionary.)
After suggesting OEtyD, and considering the other initialisms proposed, I began to favour Etymonline. It conveys the website’s address (etymonline.com) and its subject, it’s unambiguous and easy on the eye, and it’s used by Douglas Harper himself.