Pokorny's Back

This July, for my birthday (a big one) my companion fulfilled one of my oldest book-wishes when she gave me Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. First published in 1959 in Switzerland, it was out of print (with rare second-hand copies being out of reach financially for me) by the time I came across it. Which was first in 1971 in Robert Kelly’s collection of essays, In Time, where he juxtaposed as a sort of “found collaged essaylet” two of Pokorny’s entries for the root √pel– , on the one hand “flow” and on the other “polis, city.” I had always been fascinated by etymologies and living and working as much between languages as in any one, as I did then and still do, this fascination had hardened into the need to know as much as possible about the origin of the words I read and write. The first copy of the 1957 edition I actually saw and held was the one owned by Jeremy Prynne when I visited him in his Caius and Gonville digs in Cambridge in 1973 or 4. Only one University I worked or studied at ever owed a copy, and that was, wierdly enough, SUNY Binghampton. Meanwhile I would every so often check AbeBooks or whatever antiquarian bookshop I would browse in for an affordable copy Pokorny. “No glot, no bueno, clome back fliday” — to use Burrough’s Chinese laundry-cum-opium-den line. I guess over the years I gave up looking for it, for as it turns out I missed the 2002 reprint, satisfying myself for years with the very reduced (50 pages rather than 1200) version you can find in the back of the Standard desktop edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. But Nicole did not miss the most recent — 2005 — reprint & offered it to me on 14 July.

Despite possible criticisms — Wickipedia suggests that the book “is now slightly outdated, especially as it was conservative even at the time Pokorny wrote it, ignoring the laryngeal theory, and hardly including any Tocharian or Anatolian material” — it is still by far the best and most complete etymological dictionary we have. The present edition comes in 2 volumes, the 1200-page volume 1, which is the dictionary proper, and the 500-page volume 2, which is an exhaustive index of the (close to 50.000) words arranged by language-group and referring back to their occurence in vol 1. An amazing work — I am ready to pray for heavy snowfalls that would force me to stay house-bound for days if not weeks this winter and would give permission to immerse myself completely in Pokorny. The latter was a strange character in his own right: a Prague-born Czech-Jewish Irish & German nationalist, he was a scholar of the Celtic languages, who moved to Switzerland (he had taught at the Friedrich Wilhem Universität in Berlin until the Germans discovered that he was of Jewish descent) in 1943, where he died at age 73 after being hit by a tram.

In the “Vorrede” to his dictionary Pokorny quotes Samuel Johnson: “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” Which is not just a fault to be bemoaned but a fact to be celebrated as it proves that language is a live and quicksilvery thing that can never be bagged, stuffed and mounted. The live body of language can be felt twisting and slithering, lulling and stuttering, shifting and changing in a good dictionary. And this is one of the very best of them.

Thank you for your gift, merci pour ton don, Nicole! — & below the opening paras of Pokorny’s entry for the root that will give the French word I just used, le don, the gift. The entry goes on for 2 more full pages and some, i.e. for 95 more lines:

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1 Response

  1. fmassen says:

    Dear Pierre,
    Not about etymology, but simply to wish you a very happy birthday (ok… I’m a bit late!) You always were the junior in our class, what might have been sometimes an itching and harrassing situation. Now you are the youngest = least senior of all of us, and that’s quite a revenge!
    (approaching 63)

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