Q&A With Douglas Harper: Creator of the Online Etymology DictionaryJune 18, 2015 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Pinterest Email
Douglas Harper started The Online Etymology Dictionary fourteen years ago when his interest in/obsession with the English language led him down an ongoing path of painstaking research and exhilarating discovery.
Etymology is a window into the origin and history of a word—if you dig deep enough, you’ll see how it’s changed over time. As Douglas puts it in his Introduction page, “Think of it as looking at pictures of your friends’ parents when they were your age.”
To date, there are almost 50,000 entries in the dictionary and Douglas continues to add, refine and consolidate entries, as well as work on the site’s search engine.
A native of southwestern Pennsylvania, Douglas is the author of four Civil War history books and he is currently an editor at Lancaster Newspapers.
Visit The Online Etymology Dictionary at: www.etymonline.com
We know you cover this in-depth on your site, but can you tell us when you started the Online Etymology Dictionary and why?
As far as I can remember, I started working on it as a website 2000 or 2001, probably the latter. Before that, for some time, I was trying to gather the history of words into my head, the different components of English and what makes the language tick. I was reading dictionaries and linguistics books. It helps me to type out what I am learning. So I started doing that. It also helps me to to have a place to store what I learn so I could find it again when I forget it, which sometimes doesn’t take long.
My motivation has grown a good deal more tangled since then.
Is the site’s name, as an acronym, a personal hat tip to that other OED (the venerable Oxford English Dictionary)?
At the beginning, after I decided to make a public web site of it, a friend and I were kicking around name ideas and “Online Etymology Dictionary” came up. It was simple and descriptive. Nowadays I might want to add “English” to it, but back then, everything online was English.
Hat tip? I don’t know if internet hat-tipping even had been invented then. And I don’t think the Oxford would have noticed me if I lit my hat on fire and waved it around. My friend noted that the acronym from the name would be the same as the OED. That was an amusing coincidence. The notion that my rinky-dink etymological flea-circus could possibly be confused with their academic juggernaut seemed unthinkable.
What’s been your favorite discovery in terms of a word origin, history or its evolution of use?
My favorite discoveries are not individual words — they’re all beautiful in their own way. Apologies for begging off your question. But I do like to see the larger patterns woven into the words; patterns that unfold over time, the way a neutral word becomes a good or a bad one, or a word brought in as a euphemism for a cuss word quickly becomes just as taboo. The way you can find the same image (though not the same words) in ancient Roman slang and modern urban slang.
The crooked timber of human nature that shows through.
Is there a word that has somehow eluded your dogged research?
I have long, long lists of words I mean to dig deeper into. However my first-person research is limited to that I am qualified to do: I can go trace modern words and usages (post-1700) using digital archives. I can back-date the OED 5 times in 10 minutes. But I can’t improve on anyone’s Proto-Indo-European theory. Visitors can pitch any idea to me, but they have to be ready to offer evidence.
Do you take word research requests or have there been comments from users that have sparked a new line of inquiry for you?
Visitors to the site send in their theories or proposed corrections on a daily basis. Some are random guesses, easily disproved. These can be frustrating, since they often come from obviously intelligent people, some of them with more academic credentials than I have.
But usually the suggestions [that lead me] to add words, or look into certain other sources for information, are good ones. Even if it can take me months to get around to it. I cannot exaggerate the debt the site owes to the people who have used it and offered ideas to improve it, from rooting out my typographical errors to suggesting better books than the ones I was using (and in some cases, sending the book).
How interested are you in ‘new’ words like ‘selfie’? (Though, your site is a good reminder that a word like ‘meme’ didn’t start yesterday on the internet, but dates back to 1976 when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined it…)
I’m mildly interested in new words. But there seems to be no shortage of other sites that are circling the waters to pounce on every new word that comes along. I understand; that’s where the clicks are and where the money is. I leave that to them.
I’m more interested in connecting the present to the past. The present seems to be sufficiently connected to the present without my help.
I’m setting up a tool that will set that selfie-taking young person up to go spelunking in Dickens or Coleridge or Sterne and get some of the richness of it.
You mention in your intro that you did not anticipate hearing from ESL students—can you share any exchanges you’ve had with people learning the language who have reached out to you?
Many of them are pretty much like this:
Greetings, My name is Mariam. I am MA student specialized in linguistics from Baghdad\Iraq.
All I want to say is “Thank You.” Thank You for making http://www.etymonline.com, and Thank You for make it accessible for everyone. I am writing a thesis and part of it depends on the etymology of English derivatives. I do not know what would I do without this site. I enjoyed searching and learning from it.
It’s the accessibility of the information they appreciate. Some have written about how seeing the structure of the history makes the language easier for them to learn. English is pretty daunting from the outside, I suppose. Different tools work well in different minds. For some, etymology is it.
How did the app for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau come about?
That’s something developed by a user of the site who wanted to make the information in it more accessible for people [worldwide.] China is now fourth in the list of countries using the site by traffic volume, but the site is still sometimes inaccessible there. This young fellow’s philosophy about words aligned with mine, so he approached me about making an app that would make access more reliable there.
You mention doing a complete write-through correcting text and expanding entries—how long did that process take…or is it ongoing?
It is never-ending. I can date my life moments from the last 10 years by where I was in the editing. I don’t remember exactly the first year we took the family to Ocean City, but I know I was editing “IN-” words. Last year when we visited my parents in Hilton Head, I was editing “TH-.”
The last run-through was a complete recheck of everything against the sources. But along the way I’ve added new books to those I use, and by the time I’ve reached “Z” there are enough new sources that I begin the sweep again, using the new books. Also, the style is constantly evolving, trying to become as simple yet fluent as it can be. The wording has to be kept consistent. When I think of all the ways I want it to be, and the state it’s really in, it looks like a failure to me.
Do you ever envision being ‘done?’
Done = dead. Or too senile to continue. I’m trying to get the search engine fixed. I’ve been trying to get that for 10 years now. It’s not easy to hire someone to do that, or more likely I’m not someone young techies can work with. I’m still mostly in the 20th century.Join NowJoin Later Join NowJoin Later