In-depth dictionary will trace words to their roots

by Peter Kauffner

Apples grow on trees, and the government prints money. And words — words come from, well, other words.
For example, the Lilliputians of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” lent their name to a synonym for “extremely small.” But one University scholar wonders how Swift came up with the term in the first place.
“You don’t just open your mouth and produce a new word,” said German professor Anatoly Liberman. “Strangely enough, the word lilliputian sounds exactly like the Swedish ‘lille putte,’ — little man. But did Swift know Swedish? If he didn’t, who suggested the idea to him?”
Liberman has spent the last nine years working on a massive dictionary of English etymology, which he expects to complete in about 15 more. He projects that the book will contain nearly 18,000 pages of information on word origins when it finally rolls off the presses.
“In order to write a good dictionary, one needs decades,” Liberman said. “The great Oxford English Dictionary took about 70 years to produce. The latest etymological dictionary took about three months to produce — complete trash.”
To Liberman, the etymologies given in currently available dictionaries leave something to be desired, especially when there are conflicting theories concerning a word’s origin.
“They will tell you more or less what is known safely, and if it’s not absolutely safe, they will say ‘origin unknown,'” Liberman said.
In the course of his research, Liberman has learned how far some people will go to discover a word’s origin.
The project was initially funded by a $10,000 grant from a fund controlled by University President Nils Hasselmo, who is a language professor. Two years later, Liberman approached Ettore “Jim” Infante, who was then vice president for Academic Affairs.
“I came to (Infante) and said, `I am running out of Nils’ money. We will never find out the origin of the word `busy.’ So he gave me $10,000,” Liberman said.
‘Busy’ is derived from the Old English word ‘bysig.’ Other Germanic languages have similar sounding words with nearly the same meaning. This much is well-known, but Liberman was eventually able to trace the word’s history back even further.
“The word ‘busy’ originates from something like ‘bizz, bizz,’ which was a sound imitating flying insects,” Liberman said. The sound came to be associated with the noisy agitation of cattle being pursued by bugs.
The words “boisterous” and “boast” are from the same root as “busy,” Liberman added.
“The true etymology of ‘busy’ was given at the beginning of the 19th century. But it was done by a Dutch scholar writing in German and not very interested in English etymology,” Liberman said.
University administrators are not the only ones with an interest in learning obscure word origins. An anonymous donor gave the project $50,000 last year.
“I’m in clover now. I hardly spend more than $5,000 to $6,000 a year,” Liberman said.
Nearly 60 volunteers have worked on the project, in addition to 20 to 25 paid employees.
“When I first started my project, someone would call almost once a week offering to volunteer to work on the dictionary,” Liberman said.
The article giving the origin of “busy” was uncovered by project volunteers who combed through the literature of word origins while creating a database for the project.
“Just walk into the periodical room of Wilson Library and try to imagine people going from shelf to shelf looking at all the linguistic journals,” said Liberman.
Also, sacks of books are obtained from other libraries by interlibrary loan, and photocopied.
“They know me so well at Kinko’s that when I walk in they say, ‘Hello, how many books today?'” Liberman said.
The volunteers read through this material, and pages with relevant information are photocopied for the database. A computerized index is used to keep track of database files. The information in the index will be published as a bibliography in about a year.
“A dictionary is like a factory,” said Liberman. “(The Oxford English Dictionary) killed James Murray. He a was a blooming, healthy man from Scotland. Three decades of work on the dictionary turned him into a shadow of his former self, a miserable man — irate, unhappy, grumbling, and exploiting his numerous children. Each of them had to copy (citation slips for the dictionary).”
Liberman, 60, was born in Soviet Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia. He earned a doctorate in philology from the University of Leningrad in 1962. As a Jew, he was allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1975. He came to Minnesota soon afterward and has been teaching at the University since.
Ari Hoptman, a graduate student in German philology who assists Liberman, describes Liberman as a detail-oriented person.
“If you give him a list of abbreviations, he will spend hours reading it to make sure everything is exactly right,” Hoptman said. “He sees etymology as a science and as something that’s fun to talk about.”
Because of the length of time it takes to produce a good dictionary, foundations are reluctant to support etymological research, said Liberman.
“One thing that is little-known is how much work can be done with very little money. There is something called overhead. That’s how all universities live,” Liberman said.
The University’s most recent indirect cost agreement, signed in 1995, assigns 47 percent of grant money to miscellaneous University research expenses. “This surplus goes to people like myself,” Liberman said.
Liberman hopes that his dictionary will put the University of Minnesota on the linguistic map.
“It really is a University of Minnesota dictionary, just as Oxford English Dictionary is Oxford University’s dictionary,” Liberman said. “It is being produced with Minnesota’s money, Minnesota’s volunteers, Minnesota’s students and Minnesota’s beautiful Wilson Library.”