Book Review: Dubious Doublets

Dubious Doublets, by Stewart Edelstein, is another in the long line of popular press etymology books. Two things, however, make this book stand out from the crowd. The first is the quality of the research and the second is Edelstein’s approach to the subject, examining pairs of seemingly unrelated words that share a common origin.

Edelstein is an amateur etymologist. A lawyer by trade, he brings over thirty years of private study to the subject and it shows. Although the book lacks source notes or a bibliography (Edelstein does provide a rather long list of books that are “recommended reading"), the etymologies he gives stand up to detailed scrutiny. Edelstein does not plump for questionable etymologies, nor does he attempt to pass off false etymologies with words like “some people believe.”

But what really sets this book apart is the approach of examining two seemingly unrelated words. Edelstein takes a pair of words that appear to be completely unrelated, both in form and in meaning. He then demonstrates how they are connected.

One advantage of this approach is that he deals with words that typically do not make it popular etymology books because they seem so ordinary. But ordinary words often have stories to tell. Some of the usual suspects, such as OK, make it into Dubious Doublets, but most the words are ones that are not addressed outside the brief etymological notes in a dictionary.

Some of his pairs include:

  • Lunatic/lynx; both from the Indo-European root *leuk, meaning light, brightness, lunatic is from luna meaning moon and the lynx gets its name from its shining eyes at night.
  • Endorse/do-si-do; these words share the Latin dorsum, or back, to endorse a check is to write on its back and do-si-do is a dancing move where the partners are back-to-back.
  • Salary/sausage; these both share the Latin sal, or salt, salary originally referred to money given Roman soldiers so they could buy salt and sausage comes to us by the Latin salsus meaning salted.

Edelstein does not restrict himself to the 112 pairs of words he specifically address. Many of his entries delve into other related words as well. His entry on parallel/paramecium, for example, also examines parlor and parabola. And jacket/jack-o’-lantern also gives us jackanapes and hijack.

He also takes the reader on various cultural and historical diversions. Oxygen/vinegar nicely digresses into a discussion of acronyms and portmanteau/mantle segues into a brief discussion of American political scandals.

The reader approaches each of the word pairs wondering how they are connected. So instead of simply being assaulted with a long, alphabetical list of words and origins, the curiosity is piqued with each one. Add to that the delightful diversions and nuggets of history and culture and you have a popular etymology book that is a cut above the rest.

Paperback, 224 pages, John Wiley & Sons, Feb 2003, ISBN: 0471227641, $14.95

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