“A Brilliant, Holistic Approach”: On Deborah Warren’s “Strange to Say: Etymology as Serious Entertainment”

April 8, 2022   •   By Tom Dalzell

Strange to Say: Etymology as Serious Entertainment

Deborah Warren

THE FIELD ON which Deborah Warren labors, etymology, is a well-worked one. Many have contributed to our body of knowledge, including my scholastic/publishing ancestor Eric Partridge with his Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1958). Most of those who have chased the elusive goddess etymology have fallen into one or both of two traps. Often, they assign a certainty to an etymology that is unwarranted at best, mistaken at worst. It is not as if a word or phrase upon entering the language does so with a registered pedigree; most often, we don’t know where a new word or phrase that we are using comes from — and we don’t care. The second common trap is a slavish adherence to categories and rules. If we are talking about words or phrases involving animals, God forbid we stray for a moment to ponder a strikingly similar — but non-animal — phrase or term.

On both these issues, Warren avoids the common pitfalls. Yes, her 34 relatively short chapters are loosely based on thematic categories, but the categories are not rigid and her adherence to them is not absolute. The reins are laid on loose, and we’re treated to an occasional self-scold, such as, “But we’ve gotten far afield. The topic was horses.” In Chapter 9, Warren tells the reader that she’s pulling off a “sub-detour,” another gently humorous self-poke. In reality, Warren is on a journey that embraces tangents and digressions as strengths, not weaknesses. The meandering evolution of a chapter is possible to chart, of course, and such an exercise will highlight Warren’s agility. To make an esoteric comparison, the charting of a Warren chapter would resemble nothing so much as a Grateful Dead set list — the transitions are dazzling but not intuitively obvious.

As for the certainty with which etymologies are presented, Warren errs on the side of caution. She presents her etymologies as conclusions, uncluttered by detailed explanations and word-sleuthing. Once I deduced Warren’s approach, I pulled down every etymology book in my slang library in an attempt to find an error in her work — just one would do. I failed. While the absence of proof at times leaves the reader a tad hungry, it’s better than wandering through a minefield of errors. Best to sidestep the holy wars that can and do ensue when lexicographers focus on precise etymologies. Great lexicographers have found etymology to be the Khyber Pass where empires go to die. Take a look at the dozen-plus “convincing” etymologies for the word “cop” and you will understand the point I’m making.

Unlike Eric Partridge, Deborah Warren has not spent her life in the stacks of the British Library, emphasis on dictionaries. She is a poet, and most of her published work is poetry. She brings a poet’s ear and eye to Strange to Say, finding joy in the words as much as in their pedigrees. There is an artistry present in Strange to Say that I have rarely encountered in word books. Lewis Poteet’s look at the slang of ice hockey, Paul Dickson’s work on baseball etymologies, and Leo Rosten’s exploration of Yiddish can hold a candle to Warren’s book, but few others come to mind. Warren values every facet of a word — its sound, its etymology, its meaning, and its ability to evoke. Warren is the polar opposite of a Scrabble player, to whom a word’s meaning is meaningless, and often unknown. For Warren, the meaning is critically important. She doesn’t confine her explanations to semantics, freely venturing into underlying subject matters. For example, when she writes of “devil’s advocate,” she visits historical theology, teaching us that the term originally applied to the church lawyer tasked with challenging candidates for sainthood, most often by debunking claimed miracles. Her exploration of “teddy bear” gives her the chance to dabble in Theodore Roosevelt’s language-coining, and then bounce between “teddy” and “bear.”

Deborah Warren brings joy and pleasure to etymology. Every explanation rings with pride and joy, and with a proud use of language, such as in her observation that the sense of “whole cloth” is “original to the point of being a lie” — wonderful. Warren’s subtitle is “Etymology as Serious Entertainment.” She hits the mark with both adjective and noun. My entire slang library, including the shelves of works on etymology, are now being cataloged for the University of Indiana. I might have thought that my etymology section was robust enough and needed no newcomers, but I would have been wrong. I am sending my review copy of Strange to Say to Indiana. It is a strong piece of work on etymologies — a brilliant, holistic approach by a most gifted amateur.

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A resident of Berkeley, California, Tom Dalzell has written extensively on language, most notably as the general editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2005).