Book Review: The Etymological Bookshelf: Starter Set

This month we’re doing something a little different with the book review. Instead of reviewing a single book, we’re going to cover the basic books that should be on the serious amateur English-language etymologist’s shelf. These are the fundamental research tools.

There are many great etymological books out there that are not listed here. Simply because a book is not covered here doesn’t mean it’s not a good source or that it isn’t useful. The books covered this month are the basic ones—the “go to” books that are the first off the shelf when an etymological question arises.

The first source isn’t actually a book at all and it won’t take up any space on your shelf. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary Online, (See our complete review of the OED Online in the March 2002 issue.) The OED is the single best source for information on the English language. It contains over half a million words and over 2.5 million usage quotations. It is by far the greatest dictionary in the world. The online version consists of the second edition (1989), the three volumes of the Additions Series, and updated entries for the future third edition.

Whenever an etymological question arises, the first place to look should be the OED. The answers to most questions are only a few keystrokes away.

You can, of course, buy print copies of the second edition and the Addition Series—but not the updated third edition entries, which are only available online. But that’s a lot of book to be lifting on and off the shelf and you don’t have the keyword search capability that the online version provides. And we can’t overemphasize the importance of the search function. The OED site has an extremely powerful and flexible search engine—yet one that is also easy to use. (Which is rare; usually power and flexibility mean user unfriendliness.)

The chief drawback to the OED Online is price. The $550/year retail subscription price is prohibitive. If you don’t have access through an institution, you can get reasonably priced access through such places as the Quality Paperback Book Club ( [Note: QPB no longer offers access to the OED.]

As great as the OED is, it is not perfect. It won’t answer all your questions. Its chief deficiency is in slang terms, especially American ones.

To fill this gap, the next on our list is the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, J.E. Lighter, editor. This comes in two volumes (so far). Volume One covers A-G and Volume Two covers H-O. Meticulously researched and including usage citations, RHHDAS is the best source for information on American slang expressions, at least from the first half of the alphabet.

Unfortunately, the demise of Random House’s dictionary division means that this work is probably not going to be completed. It is my understanding that Dr. Lighter is pursuing other publishers, and hopefully someone else will pick up the project. But for now, the second half of the alphabet is in limbo.

To find the answers to American slang expressions M-Z, the best place to look is Mitford Mathews’s Dictionary of Americanisms. Mathews’s work is a single volume. As such, it’s not as thorough as RHHDAS, but it’s still a very good research tool. Its chief drawback is age. Originally published in 1951, it obviously omits many recent slang expressions. Also, given the era it was published, it omits many profane and otherwise unsavory expressions.

Mathews is also out of print, but it’s readily available through used-book outlets, both online and in bricks-and-mortar stores.

That covers American slang, but there is still slang from Britain and the Commonwealth. The OED, as one might expect, does a better job with British slang expressions than it does with American ones, but it still falls short. The place to go for British slang is Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th Edition.

Partridge, a New Zealander transplanted to Britain, penned an enormous number of books on slang in the middle of the 20th century. His research, especially regarding dates, is notoriously sloppy and often inaccurate, but he remains the only source for the origins of many slang expressions. His posthumous editor, Paul Beale, has done much to correct Partridge’s errors in the DSUE’s 8th Edition.

That about covers it. Between these sources you should be able to find the answer to almost any etymological question. Some selected books on jargon, place names, and other highly specialized fields may need to be consulted for certain arcane expressions, but these cover the basics.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one other source, the Dictionary of American Regional English, Frederic Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall, editors. It’s not one of the basics because it is somewhat duplicative with RHHDAS. It does, however, have a slightly different focus. It doesn’t so much deal with slang, although many slang expressions are found in its pages, but it focuses on expressions that are used in particular regions of the United States.

The first three volumes of DARE cover A-O, and a fourth will be published later this year.
If you’re going to expand your bookshelf beyond the basics, these volumes should be among the first acquired.

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