Lexicographer, unchained

From lexicographer Kory Stamper on her blog (“harm∙less drudg∙ery: life from inside the dictionary”) of December 19th: “Answers I Wish I Could Send: Etymology Edition”, with comments from readers (edited some for clarity) and sharp-tongued answers she wishes she could give. Making points on my blog, Language Log, Ben Zimmer’s blogs, etc. Hilarious stuff. Some highlights below.

About Stamper, from Wikipedia:

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer and editor for the Merriam-Webster family of dictionaries. In addition to her editorial duties, she presents many of Merriam-Webster’s “Ask the Editor” videos, a series on the publisher’s website and YouTube that discusses the English language, especially unusual or controversial words and usages.

Early on, a general comment from KS:

The reason that there are so few etymologists in the world is not for lack of education or desire; it’s because etymology is really frickin’ hard sometimes.

Unfortunately, people keep trying their hand at etymology. Here’s a proposal from one reader (who’s fond of tildes):

I recently read, in, I believe, the Webster’s Unabridged version, that the origin of the term “Nosy Parker” was unknown~~I believe that this term originated from a series of movies, in which the lead actor was Lionel Barrymore,known as Dr. Gillespie~~these movies, each with a different title, featured Dr. Gillespie in the lead role as not only a doctor, but a solver of mysteries~~he is wheelchair bound in each of the series, and is looked after, fretted over, and followed around by his nurse, Miss (or Mrs.) Parker~~she is constantly trying to find out what he is up to, and listens through the door, reads his messages, whatnot~~hence~~she was nosy Parker, the nurse who could not let anything alone~~~This,I feel, is where the term “Nosy Parker” comes from~~~

KS’s reaction:

In any event, that would be a wonderful etymology for “Nosy Parker,” but alas, time is not on your side. “Nosy Parker” first showed up in print in the late 1800s; Lionel Barrymore’s movies date to the 1940s. Generally speaking, the word shows up in print after it is coined, not before, though we cannot discount the existence of a band of time-traveling linguistic trolls who have an inexplicable love of Lionel Barrymore.

Sadly, this state of affairs is fairly common in etymology: there is a perfect, spot-on story about how a word came to be, and then the horrible linear nature of time (as we experience it) screws it all up.

Another reader:

I’d just like to say, though your app states that the origin of the word “gorp” is “unknown,” most everybody knows that it is an acronym for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.”

The core of KS’s response, leaving out examples and details:

Acronymic etymologies are, by and large, total horseshit.

And to another reader’s proposals, a brisk warning:

It’s a common misconception among people who really, really love their native language a lot that their native language is the Ur-language, the language from which all other language sprang. This misconception is hard to counter: I mean, if you are positive that there is a family resemblance between Norwegian and, say, Amharic, then you are damned well going to see a family resemblance.

True, she can’t say these things on the M-W site. But she can entertain us with hard truths plainly stated,

Leave a Reply