Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 10, 2010


You probably have a moment like this: you use a word, or hear one used, or read it somewhere, and you ask yourself, “Where in the heck did that word come from?” It can be a common word, or, as Groucho said about the Secret Word, “Something you see every day.”

It happened to me this week. We were having waffles and I was pouring syrup. “Syrup,” I thought. Where does that word come from?”

Well, I can tell you. I looked it up. According to the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, “syrup” has been in the English language since at least 1398, when, the Dictionary tells us, it was first written down in English in a manuscript that’s now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This first recorded usage was in the context of a medicinal syrup. The OED goes on to tell us that the word came into English via medieval French (that being the official language of the English court at the time) which got it from medieval Latin, which picked it up from Arabic, sharao. The original sense in Arabic was a beverage, sometimes specifically wine, but not always.

The next thing one wonders is, HOW did all these changes occur and how does anyone know it?

To answer that question for any single word, following its evolution and adoption through multiple languages, is the work of lots of scholars across hundreds of years. Many years ago, I had an opportunity to see a notable example of that sort of etymological research. I was at the University of Michigan. My professor for the study of Beowulf was the eminent scholar, Sherman Kuhn. Today, my worn copy of Beowulf retains lots of marginalia like, “Kuhn disagrees w/ this trans.” He published significant work critiquing the translation and etymology of the poem. Dr. Kuhn’s primary work at that time, though, was serving as chief editor of The Middle English Dictionary (MED). At the time, this project had been under way at UM for forty or forty-five years, initially under its original editor, Hans Kurath, and then under Dr. Kuhn.

The method for compiling a historical dictionary of an ancient language is simple, but not trivial. Scholars who study old languages like Middle English are aware of the work going on to compile a dictionary. Every time they encounter a use of a term in an old book or letter or manuscript that they think to be significant because of the date or spelling or usage, they write it down with all the appropriate notations, and send it off to the staff of the dictionary. The editors then collate and compare and parse and decide upon the historical bases of each word from these collected scribblings. The MED published its first volumes in 1954, and by the time I was at Michigan, in 1973-74, they had published the volumes documenting A to M.

I visited Dr. Kuhn in the MED offices, which would have fulfilled anyone’s wildest imagination of what the hermetic, esoteric pursuit of compiling a dictionary of ancient words should look like. It could’ve been a set for a room in Hogwarts Castle. One floor of a building, mostly open space, divided by support pillars, dimly lit, was filled with a couple dozen long tables. Packed on those tables were boxes and boxes of index cards and paper slips, each piece one of those citations submitted by scholars working in The Vatican Library, the British Museum, and scores of other little nooks and crannies of the scholarly world. The MED had gotten a huge bonanza many years before, when the researchers at Oxford University completed their publication of the Oxford English Dictionary. The many boxes of citations pertaining to Middle English were shipped off to Dr. Kurath in Ann Arbor to form the initial corpus of raw material for the MED. Those boxes, and scores of others, containing citation slips that dated back scores of years were now in that room, and the MED’s small staff of editors and clerks were working through them, one word at a time.

At that time, of course, none of that work was computerized. Even photocopying was still a fairly crude process. This was tedious, hand-copying work, which eventually was set in type by hand. The long, slow grind from citation slip to published volume was laborious. That memory is now a glimpse into a world gone by.

As my year at Michigan year nearing its end, I went to see Dr. Kuhn. I had some hope that there might be a job available on the Dictionary. I knew he had a positive, if not wildly enthusiastic regard for me, so I asked. As it happened, he was nearly giddy with big news that was going to radically affect the future of the MED: They had received a mammoth grant — $2 million — to hire the staff needed to finish the work — N to Z — in 7 years! What was more important, Kuhn would be able to pay his editors a truly professional salary. This news had blazed across the scholarly grapevine. He had in hand 200 applications from PhDs vying for those 7 slots. Clearly, the game had moved to a league in which I could not play.

Did they succeed? Yes, the MED, all its volumes with 15,000 pages, occupying about 4 feet of linear shelf space, did finally see print. But, uh, it took a little longer than Dr. Kuhn expected. The final volumes rolled off the press in 2001, 27 years after that April day I met with Sherman Kuhn. It did, in fact, occupy nearly the entire working career of Dr. Kuhn’s own successor who, as it happens was one of that first crop of PhDs he hired with the largesse of that grant. All told, the Dictionary had required 75 years from start to finish. It is generally considered to be one of the great accomplishments of scholarly enterprise.

In 2007, U of M put the dictionary online. It’s not designed for the casual browser, but you may find it interesting. HERE is the MED Web site.

HERE on Amazon Books you can get a look at examples of the published pages.

Now, back to our original question: somewhere in the archives of the University of Michigan are microfilms or perhaps even, now, digitized records of all those citations and a long, long paper trail of work done by now-forgotten scholars who traced the word back from English to French to Latin to Arabic. If we were pursuing a dissertation, we could delve into that abyss and uncover the evidence that links the syrup on a table in California to some contact between the fading medieval Roman empire and the local Arabic language: Syria? Egypt? Spain? Sicily? Who knows?

I always wonder what it would’ve been like, had things gone differently, to labor away in that dusty room in Ann Arbor, transcribing notes someone had sent in from the Bodleian Library perhaps decades before! Another path not trodden.

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. You can Google Prof Michael Louis Samuels Uny of Glasgow to see his work on the Thesaurus etc. I was his student 1973-6.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: