At the University of Minnesota, a linguistics professor is racing against his own mortality to finish a dictionary that will explain the origins and history of some of the most mysterious words in the English language. If he completes it, it will be the second time any language has had its linguistic history documented in this way. The trouble is, Anatoly Liberman is 74, and he thinks he needs at least another decade to finish his dictionary.
As he dug further, Liberman discovered that about 1,000 common English words -- mooch, nudge, man, girl, boy, frog, oat, witch and skedaddle among them -- seemed to be highly confused or all but untraceable, as if they magically appeared in English, pouf!
"It was like finding all these waifs of English who run around with dirty T-shirts and no shoes and no one takes care of them," says Liberman. "And suddenly I wanted to build a nice, warm orphanage for the parentless words, for the boys and girls and heifers too."
It would be a new kind of word-origin dictionary, one focusing on the most problematic, misunderstood words in English. Liberman knew right away it was a magnificent, massive project that could take 30 years or longer to complete.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Getting In the Last Word
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.