For Christmas this year my wife presented me with a beautiful baby boy, a happy event that has nevertheless plunged my life into chaos and disorder. Luckily for me, she bought me another gift that had a quite opposite effect: Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. For two months I leafed through the book in idle moments, but I instinctively waited for warm weather before I grasped its covers with more ambitious intent; for this book is no less than a complete set of tools for a spring cleaning of the mind. Best of all, it cleans house in exactly the way I like to clean house: not methodically, room by room, but with a joyously scattered logic close to randomness, from desk drawer to garage to file cabinet to kitchen shelf.

The wisdom of a culture lies embedded in its language, and one of the ways in which we grow up (ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny) is by mining that vein. Using a word frequently whose derivation you don’t know is like not knowing the occupation or birthplace of a close friend; the knowledge once gained, everything suddenly falls into place. Words are not neutral markers of circumscribed significations, to be pushed around like chess men. With each word we use we re-create and encapsulate a dynasty, a series of discoveries, a misconception, a historical faux pas, a bit of folk wisdom, and to be aware of the millennia of evolutionary excretions one dredges up with each word is to be in control of one’s expression and ultimately one’s very thought. Etymology (“study of truth”), then, is to the mind what weight lifting is to the muscles and aerobics to the heart and lungs. Hence, Dr. Shipley’s Discursive Dictionary is the mental equivalent of a fully equipped gymnasium between covers and a half apart.

“Discursive” is truly the title’s key word. No count is provided of the hundreds of roots listed from the reconstruction Indo-European language, let alone of the tens of thousands of English words and expressions that have appeared in the four thousand years of evolution traced. But these dry lists in themselves would be relatively unedifying without Dr. Shipley’s frequent diversions into the odd corner of the language, usually explanatory, often whimsically farfetched. The history of the language is presented not as a slow accretion of inexplicable linguistic transformations, but as an exciting panorama of events, coinages, poetic innovations, deliberate sense-twistings. Language is not autonomous, but a mirror of human society, and Dr. Shipley keeps us in close touch with that society.

As with Finnegans Wake, one can begin reading anywhere, and the book’s own chaotically logical structure will eventually lead back full circle. Through a series of coincidences whose order I disremember, I began with the root gn, gen—a good starting point, since it’s one of the most prolific roots in the language, meaning both to know and to beget. The two meanings have continued to intertwine throughout history; to know someone can entail either mental or carnal familiarity. On one side, then, the root engenders gnosis, gnome (initially a knowing remark, later a spirit of the earth, so named by Paracelsus), and cognition. The other branch is more interesting. Through the g to k shift, gen begets kin, kind (German for “child”), kindergarten, and kindle,which originally meant to beget, as to kindle a fire is to beget the flame. For their proficiency in begetting, rabbits were formerly called coneys (the hunting of which was once Coney Island’s chief amusement), and cunt is also cognate, the juxtaposition giving birth to many an ancient pun.

Along the way we find that the words ginger and gingerly have no etymological relation whatever: gingerly is cognate with genteel, which first meant “in well-bred fashion,” while ginger derives from Sanskrit words denoting its antler-shaped root. Such a fact is vaguely reassuring; it dissolves barely conscious assumptions that have never been articulated, and sweeps fragile cobwebs from a distant corner of the mind.

Adjacent, via Latin ingenium: inborn talent, is engineer, who in Hamlet was “hoist with his own petar,” a favorite phrase I’ve never known the meaning of (nor is my dictionary very confident). Thus, hence to petard, referenced to the root perd. This is fertile ground, perd being a possibly onomatopoetic word for fart. Fizzle is related, also partridge “from the whir of its sudden flight.” (But the road to per/dition lies elsewhere.) After discussion of Joseph Pujol, the famous “petomane” who convulsed fin-de-siecle Paris with his musicoanal powers, we find farting for entertainment traced back to 430 AD in, no less, Saint Augustine’s City of God: “There are those who can break wind backward so artfully you would think they sang” (xiv, 24). To “razz” someone, as in giving him the raspberry—imitating the expulsion of anal wind with the lips—comes from an abbreviated old cockney rhyme, one line of which ended with “raspberry tart.” But the discussion’s climax is an insightful quatrain by Sir John Suckling:

Love is the fart
Of every heart;
It pains a man when ’tis kept close
And others doth offend when ’tis let loose.

Though doubtful that anything can top that Valentine’s Day verse, we proceed linearly down the page and find that the cognate relation of penis and pencil, both from pes, tail, provides the sexual meaning of the old drinking toast, “Here’s lead in your pencil!”; that patter and pitter-patter derive derisively from the quick, perfunctory reading of the Paternoster (Lord’s Prayer); and that both purify and pudenda derive, in opposite directions, from the verb peu, to feel shame. But patter/peter has already sent us on the trail of petros: rock, listed under caput: head. On the way there (passing the temptation of poppycock, from pap: soft and caca: feces), under the heading cal: beauty, we learn that cosmetics comes from cosmos, which first mean order arising from primordial chaos: appropriately enough. Under caput we find that a chaperon was so named for the hood he wore as a Knight of the Garter attending the queen; and that the juvenile King Richard II was probably the first in England to use handkerchiefs, “little pieces of cloth … to wipe and clean his nose.”

Briefly continuing sans detour, we see with some slight consternation that Dr. Shipley has erred in the derivation and dates of the Dadaist movement; but he is quickly forgiving when, drawing damnation from da: divide, he quotes Browning:

There’s a great text in Galatians
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails
—”Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister”

(In the King James Version I found only 17 damnations in the text cited: Galatians 5:19:21.) Another quote, from Sir Thomas Browne, sends us on a promising wild-goose chase after sta: stand, or stay. The odd original of the military “tank” is here: manufactured secretly, the machines were shipped in boxes falsely labeled “tank,” and the name stuck. The word, from “stank,” originally meant standing water
(as Texas ranchers still call a pond on their land their tank), and later something for water to stand in. Hindustan is where the Hindus stay, and so with Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. A prostitute was named for standing forth to exhibit her wares.

The solstice is when the sun (sol) seems to stand still between the shortening and lengthening days. Historically, Christ was thought to have been born between May and August, but Saint Chrysostom suggested celebrating on December 25, the birthday of the sun in the Mithraic religion (because the winter solstice), saying, “Is not our Lord the sun of righteousness?” In AD 386 Pope Siricius made the date official. A following root, stei: solid fat, melting into stilla: trickle or drop, eventually produces stillicide, not a crime, but the “dropping of water, as from eaves, especially onto another person’s property”; we’ve retained the concept on another level in the word “eavesdropping.” Stilla trickles into “still,” in which liquor is made by dripping. It is somehow refreshing to find that, through the g to k shift, tiger and etiquette have a common ancestor in steig: stick or point, as an etiquette (= ticket) was once a little note stuck on the board of a law court; the tiger, of course, was named for its sharp fangs and claws.

Ster, which blends with sta to make star, the standing (not moving) heavenly body, contains a curious diversion on Lord Nelson’s mistress, Amy Lyon, that leads through an obscure passage into a fertile and venerable root: ueid: an object of vision, either optical, mental, or spiritual. Hence, the Vedas, knowledge. As knowing, it combines with dru; oak to name the tree worshipers Druids = oak knowers. Since white things are easily seen, ueid can also been white in combinatorial forms, as in winter, the white season, and Vienna (Latin Vindo-bono), the pleasant white place (the letters u and v being interchangeable throughout most of literate history). Most visual words stem from ueid, including “review,” which prompts a quotation from J.R. Lowel”s A Fable for Critics:

Nature fits all her children with something to do:
He who would write and can’t write, can surely review.

Spurred on by a reference, however cynical, to my sometimes profession, I look up criticize under ker, and am pleased to see that the verbal root means to scratch, cut, gather, separate, or sift. Scratching, Dr. Shipley informs us, became writing, and sifting judging or discriminating. The Parliamentary Gazeteer reveals that in the 18th century, “the critics sat on the stage, and were supplied with pipes and tobacco.” I can’t think of a practice I’d rather seen reinstated, though a friend opines that more than tobacco might have been used without the critic’s knowledge, to get a better review. Such musings, though, are cut short with Disraeli’s remark: “It is easier to be critical than correct” and truer words were never spoken. Criticism also leads back to the root sek, whence is found this bittersweet morsel:

A man must serve his time to every trade
Save sensure—critics are all ready made.
Take hackneyed jokes in Miller, got by rote,
With just enough of learning to misquote; … 

Fear not to lie, ’twill seem a sharper hit;
Shrink not from blasphemy, ’twill pass for wit;
Care not for feeling—pass your proper jest—
And stand a critic, hated yet caressed.
—Byron, “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”

Point well taken.

Also under ker, the common ancestor of both saccharin and crocodile in sakkara: pebble, or sugar; the crocodile is the “pebble-baked worm.” What imagination could have anticipated or deduced such a bizarre familial relation?

By not I’ve got two bookmarks and both sides of the book cover marking interesting entries I’ve been referred to. I want to go to the root ar for “riddle,” but first I’ve got to search out teuta: tribe for some English slurs against the Dutch that came up in the discussion of Lord Nelson. Before I get there I see that an atom (a: negative and tem: to cut, something that can’t be divided [before Einstein, that is]) was also the smallest measure of time in the medieval era, equaling 15/94 of a second: 47 atoms equaled an ounce, 376 equaled an ostent, 564 a moment, 2,256 a minutes (= six of our minutes), and 22,460 an hour (how did they measure this?). Tem: to cut also gives tonsorial; a barber’s chair was an Elizabethan term for a strumpet, because it “fits all buttocks.” (Now, according to the 17th century English, a “Dutch anchor” is something important left behind, a “Dutch nightingale” is a frog, a “Dutch feast” is when the host gets drunk before the guests do, a “Dutch wife” is a pillow between the legs for sleeping in hot weather, and a “Dutch auction” is when you announce a high figure and then gradually lower it until someone bids.

At least reaching ar: reckon (arithmetic), arrange, fit, we find that the “tele-” in Aristoteles (in English, Aristotle), which means “the best by far,” is the same as in telephone, “far-speaking.” Also, great philosopher Aristocles (“famed as the best”) has come down to posterity as Plato, named for his broad (flat) shoulders (plate, platitude). Riddle, finally, is cognate with read, and meant not only a dark saying hose meaning was to be guessed, but a sieve for arranging and separating wheat from chaff. Thus you can make a sieve of somebody by riddling him with bullets. In a discussion of unanswered literary riddles, this one comes from Rex Stout’s Some Buried Caesar: “Do you know the difference between a Catholic and a river that runs uphill?” Maddeningly, Dr. Shipley claims this one is simple, but he doesn’t deign to answer; so I heave it in the reader’s hands. Arson and azalea both stem from another meaning of ar: to burn or dry. An azalea grows best in dry soil.

The maze is never-ending, and I am finally lost in the network that radiates from these multi-nested references. Enticing fragments of Knowledge about. The Algonquian Indians derided the wolf Tribe of New York with the name tuksit: roundfoot, for their tendency to fall down in surrender. The name gave the area its Tuxedo Lake and eventually the exclusive Tuxedo Club, where in the 1880s Griswold Lorillard first appeared in a dinner jacket without tails, thenceforth called a tuxedo. A sum in arithmetic is so called because the ancient Romans put it at the top of a column of figures—the summit. Pluck formerly meant the entrails of an animal, which were plucked out and thrown to the dogs. The viscera being considered the seat of courage, sportswriters in the 1850s, seeking (as today) variety of terminology, used “pluck” for a quality of courageous persistence. In an odd diversion, William Shakespeare may have been distantly related to the only Englishman to become pope, Adrian IV (d. 1159); unless Dr. Shipley is pulling our leg, a possibility I’ve had to entertain more than once.

My mind reels. Like my body after a stiff workout, it hurts, but it feels good. I’ll certainly never feel the same way again about partridges and crocodiles. My mind has been too long in disarray, and there is much work left to do; but already, formerly muddy concepts are bright and clean, and once misplaced cognates and synonyms are neatly arranged and ready at hand. The search satisfies simultaneously a passion for trivia and also a passion for something much deeper —connectedness, logos, and too-elusive unity of the world and our representation of it. By filling in the tendrils that connect our daily conversation with the compressed, primordial language, the etymologist simplifies our life by reducing, like Occam’s razor, the number of entities in the world.

The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Joseph T. Shipley, Johns Hopkins University Press, $39.95.