Getting in the last word

  • Article by: ALYSSA FORD , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2011 - 3:26 PM

A U of M professor is trying to beat the clock to finish his masterwork: A dictionary of the origins of some of the most misunderstood words in English.

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Prof. Anatoly Liberman, 74, is determined to finish his dictionary of 1,000 words, with the lineage of each thoroughly explicated.

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Anatoly Liberman is a linguist, a lover of words. But numbers have become far more important as he labors on his masterwork, a multi-volume dictionary on the history of common English words.

His age, for instance: 74.

Or the number of years he estimates he has left on the project: 10.

And then there's the most daunting figure of all: 1,000, or the number of words he intends to include in his dictionary. Each word must be painstakingly researched, analyzed, written up and polished. On the origin of the word "dwarf," for instance, he has already written 16 double-columned, single-spaced pages.

There is a risk he might not finish the work. In lexicography -- the art of writing dictionaries -- age is the deadliest occupational hazard. James A.H. Murray, the editor of the celebrated "Oxford English Dictionary," did not live to see the 10th and last volume, T to Z, in print. More recently, Fred Cassidy, the editor of the voluminous "Dictionary of American Regional English" (DARE), missed his finish line by 13 years. (Cassidy died in 2000. The last volume of DARE will be released in 2013.)

But Liberman, a professor of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, remains upbeat that he will complete his magnum opus. "If I 'survive my well-contented day,' as Shakespeare put it, I will finish," he said, noting that he eats hot cereal and a fresh grapefruit for breakfast, and walks the 45 minutes from his house to the U, often composing or translating poetry along the way in his native Russian. (He immigrated to Minnesota in 1975.)

"My wife cooks fish because she says it's better for me, but when I'm away at conferences, I have a beef steak and I find it very good," he says, in the clipped British accent he cultivated by listening to hours and hours of BBC radio.

As the professor labors on his dictionary in the solitude of his library carrel, his wordy colleagues from around the world are closely following the progress of the "Liberman Project."

"At conferences, we ask each other how Anatoly is doing on the dictionary, how close he is," says Joan Houston Hall, the editor of the DARE at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We are all rooting for him."

"The work he's doing is extremely important to our understanding of the history of English," says Steve Harris, adjunct associate professor of German and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He added that if Liberman is able to complete the dictionary, he could very well be added to the pantheon of great lexicographers including Murray, Walter Skeat and Noah Webster.

The trouble is, Liberman was already 51 years old when he had his eureka moment in 1987. The professor was doing a little light reading at midnight (of an old Anglo Saxon manuscript) and came across the Old Scandinavian word "heidrun" for "mythical goat."

"And I wondered to myself if perhaps the word 'heidrun' helps to explain the origin of the English word 'heifer,'" he recalls.

'Waifs of English'

He flipped through all his dictionaries and discovered something odd: the history of the English word "heifer" varies widely from one reference to another, or says nothing at all. For Liberman, it was like a historian discovering that all the history books are confused on the date that Julius Caesar was killed. "And not just the date," says Liberman, "but everything was different. The dates were different, the murderers were different, the victims were different."

As he dug further, Liberman discovered that about 1,000 common English words -- mooch, nudge, man, girl, boy, frog, oat, witch and skedaddle among them -- seemed to be highly confused or all but untraceable, as if they magically appeared in English, pouf!

"It was like finding all these waifs of English who run around with dirty T-shirts and no shoes and no one takes care of them," says Liberman. "And suddenly I wanted to build a nice, warm orphanage for the parentless words, for the boys and girls and heifers too."

It would be a new kind of word-origin dictionary, one focusing on the most problematic, misunderstood words in English. Liberman knew right away it was a magnificent, massive project that could take 30 years or longer to complete.

"Some people say at the end of a project, 'If I had only known,'" he said. "But no, I went in knowing full well."

Two decades in

Considering that he still teaches full time at the U, the massive project has come a long way in 24 years. In that span, he's trained more than 50 volunteers and 50 low-paid undergraduates to trowel through massive stacks of rare, scholarly journals looking for clues on the history of the word lilliputian or pimp. One volunteer, an 80-year-old French-Canadian named Treffle Daniels, has been volunteering on the dictionary for more than 20 years.

In that span, Liberman has released three teaser publications through the Oxford University Press and the University of Minnesota Press: a paperback on word origins directed at a lay audience; a 231-page "introduction" to the dictionary, and a 7.5-pound bibliography that cites all the word-origin articles for 25,000 words. English joins Finnish as the only language in the world to have such a book, and its publication shook the language community.

Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of visualthesaurus.com and former "On Language" columnist for the New York Times, called the work "tantalizing."

"What Professor Liberman has been compiling is a far more ambitious effort than any previous etymological dictionary for the language," Zimmer wrote in an e-mail.

Unfortunately, there's only one place in the world where scholars can actually read all the articles listed in the bibliography: Prof. Liberman's library carrel at Wilson Library on the University of Minnesota campus. He dreams of finding a word-loving philanthropist who will help him build a "Center for English Etymology" at the U.

But even if there is no center, or even a graduate student to help him, Liberman says he will continue to work on the dictionary until it is complete, no matter how long it takes.

He's not interested in fanfare or prizes when the work is done. "There is no fame in scholarship," he says. "We are as obscure as our words." He does, however, have one small request: He wants a picture of a heifer on his headstone.

Alyssa Ford is Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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