Origins: An etymological dictionary of modern English

Origins: An etymological dictionary of modern English. 4th edn. By Eric Partridge. New York: Routledge, 2009. Pp. 972. ISBN 9780415474337. $79.95.

Reviewed by Peter Freeouf, Chiang Mai University

Now available to new generations of readers and lovers of the history and etymology of English, this paperback reprint of a dictionary that first appeared in 1958 (a reproduction of the fourth edition from 1966) will be a source of information for scholars and students for decades to come.

This edition begins with a forward by Philip Howard, which is a tribute to Eric Partridge’s career of more than five decades as an independent scholar who researched and wrote his numerous scholarly works in the reading-room of the British Museum. The subsequent sections include a short preface, directions on how to use the dictionary; a list of abbreviations; the dictionary, which makes up  the bulk of the volume (1–819); a short commentary (820–21), which is a list of notes to twenty-nine of the entries in the dictionary; ‘A list of prefixes’ (822–34); ‘A list of suffixes’ (835–66); ‘A list of learned compound-forming elements’ (867–970); and finally ‘Addenda to dictionary’ (970–72).

P states in the preface that his intent is to provide etymological information on ‘non-specialized words […] the 10,000 or so used by every intelligent person’ (xii). Separate lists catalogue the recurrent prefixes and suffixes that are part of English word-forming processes. Their origins and comparative forms in other languages are provided as well, along with examples. A striking feature of this dictionary is the wealth of literary and historical linguistic references in the main body of the work. For instance, in the entry for man, there are references to Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (Germania), to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (Zarathustra, which we are informed ‘appeared in 1883-85’ [375]). In the commentary, a note on the form am provides references to the Oxford English Dictionary, Eduard Prokosch’s Comparative Germanic grammar (1939, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), and to Verner’s Law (820). An interesting illustration of the depth and range of P’s scholarship is his citation for the suffix -er. There are seventeen separate entries for this suffix, which is not surprising upon examination of the entries on its complex origins and meanings (845).

The section on ‘Learned compound-forming elements’ provides similar information on the (primarily) Greek and Latin roots and stems used in English to form scientific and scholarly words that do not appear in the body of the dictionary but can assist in deciphering  the meaning of a ‘vast number of erudite terms’ (867). Common well-known roots and stems, for instance -onym, -onyma, -onymic, -onymous, -onymy are listed with a brief summary of origin and representative examples in English usage (924). Roots and stems that are less widely known and used are also listed, such as leio-/-lio, from Greek leios ‘smooth’, used in leiodermatous ‘smooth-skinned’ (909), a word which admittedly may not be often needed but is nice to know that it exists. A number of common compounding prefixes and suffixes are included in this section on elements, such as bi-, hemi-, -fer, and -scope, which have more or less specific lexical meanings in addition to their morphological word-forming functions.

In short, this dictionary is a delight to explore at leisure, wandering from one entry to another, or to use for the more directed pursuit of discovering a word’s origin.