Smothered in Onions

“Derivations,” they used to be called in school. “Pryce-Jones, give me a word that derives from the Hungarian.” Silence. “I know, sir, ‘coach’.” “Why?” Silence. “I know, sir, isn’t it from a town called Kocs?” “Good boy. And now tell me where ‘marmalade’ comes from.” “Isn’t it from Mary, Queen of Scots, when she was sick: Marie malade. Like that square in London, the Elephant and Castle, from ‘the Infanta of Castile’.” “Don’t show off. You’re wrong anyway. ‘Marmelada’ is Portuguese, from ‘marmelo,’ a quince.”

The afternoon would have drowsed (perhaps from OE drusian) less uncertainly, had Dr. Onions completed his work in time. Not that other etymological dictionaries are to seek. There is the great dictionary of Skeat, and, more recently, Eric Partridge, in various books, has given a fillip to the study of word origins. But Onions, who died in his nineties last year, was a famous lexicographer with the resources of the Oxford University Press behind him. He may be expected, therefore, with the able help of his collaborators Dr. Friedrichsen and Mr. Burchfield, to have the last word.

More than 38,000 last words, indeed: from “aardvark” to “zymurgy.” With most careful scholarship he has traced the chronology of words to their origin, refraining from guesswork except when the guess is explicitly such. He gives the pronunciation, and at times he adds a fascinating piece of special knowledge, such as the connection of “runcible”—a pickle fork was called “runcible” before Edward Lear used the word at all—with the place-name “Roncesvalles.”

All the same, this industrious compilation is only a very partial success. It raises, first of all, the question, why compile a dictionary of etymology when most good dictionaries—and certainly the Oxford English Dictionary, on which Dr. Onions had worked for most of his life—cover the ground? The answer must be that the evolution of language, especially in matters of idiom, slang, exotic turns of speech, moves too fast for any dictionary to remain up-to-date. The interraction of local usages in different parts of the United States, in Great Britain, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, will never be pinned down in a stately official dictionary. The first essential, then, for an etymological dictionary is up-to-dateness.

HERE DR. ONIONS FAILS. His entries are almost entirely confined to the conventional speech of England round about 1910. If you wish to find out why a Calypso is so called, whether “faggot” could mean anything beyond a bundle of sticks tied together (from the Greek phákelos), why “john” covers a field beyond the range of either the Baptist or the Evangelist; if you search for the origin of words like “stoned,” or “limey”; above all, if you so much as approach the bed, let alone the chaise-longue, you must look elsewhere for information.

He is not even very consistent. We are told that “fuchsia” stems from Leonhard Fuchs, and “begonia” from Michel Begon: but how about parallel derivatives in other spheres? Is not “bilharzia” as good as “dahlia”? At times he…

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