Etymology Sites Attract Word Lovers

By Pack, Thomas | Information Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Etymology Sites Attract Word Lovers


Pack, Thomas, Information Today


Can love of language lead to a love of a lifetime?

Melanie Crowley, a Dallas native, has two loves: the weather and words. In fact, her fascination with the capricious Texas climate led her to pursue a degree in meteorology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Then, in 1994, her love of the origins and development of words (aka etymology) motivated her to launch a Web site called The Logical World of Etymology. In an online bio, Melanie said she is not only fascinated with English but she is also "conversationally fluent in Spanish and Lakota (Sioux)," plus she's "well-familiar with several other languages, including Latin, German, French, and Italian."

It just so happened that one of the first visitors to Melanie's site was Mike Crowley, a native of Cardiff, Wales, who studied Welsh as well as Sanskrit, Latin, French, German, and Tibetan.

Mike and Melanie began exchanging e-mails. Although they lived half a continent apart at the time, they started a whirlwind romance ("Well, she IS a meteorologist," says Mike's online bio). The couple eventually married and began collaborating on the etymology site, which they renamed in 1997. It's now known as Take Our Word for It (http://www.takeourword.com), one of several etymology Web sites that attract word lovers worldwide.

Taking Them at Their Word

Take Our Word for It is a Webzine divided into three departments: Spotlight, Words to the Wise, and Curmudgeon's Corner.

Spotlight expounds on the history of a word or a set of related words. For example, Melanie drew on her meteorological background in one article to explain the classification of clouds and the etymology of their names ("cumulus," for instance, is derived from the Latin word for "little heap").

In the Words to the Wise column, Melanie and Mike answer readers' questions, such as: "Did the singer Beyonce actually coin the word 'bootylicious,' as some newspaper articles have reported?" Truth be told, she did not, according to the Crowleys, who also provide a citation of the word in a 1992, obscenity-laden Dr. Dre song.

Curmudgeon's Corner is where regular contributors Malcolm Tent and Barb Dwyer (as well as a few "guestmudgeons") complain about abuses and misuses of the English language. "You don't need to tell us that they are being prescriptivist and elitist, or that they are essentially denying that English is a living, evolving language," according to the Crowleys. "We know that. We tell Barb and Malcolm that all the time. They just don't listen and continue to complain. And we continue to publish their comments for your enjoyment."

The Webzine's archives, dating from the first issue published on July 20, 1998, are available through the site's Back-Issues link. You also can search the site for keywords. So far, Take Our Word for It hasn't been updated in a few months, but you can still find some recent musings on words in the site's blog.

Tracking Words' Magical Roots

"It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature."

This quotation is posted on a page at the Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com) site, which was created in 2001 to track word roots. The dictionary bills itself as "a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English."

Douglas Harper, a historian and author based in Lancaster, Pa., said he began working on the site "after I looked one day for a free dictionary of word origins online and found that there was none. You could subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary for $550 a year. …

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