Scholarly, substantive, and engaging as it is, Liberman's dictionary in his own words is "written to test the chosen approach to the new dictionary" he has put together. The dictionary is intended to be a model for future etymological exploration and study. Most importantly for the field, it introduces but mostly exemplifies a new approach to the investigation of word origins and deciding on the right root for a word, when this can be done with a reasonable degree of assurance. As Liberman states and demonstrates with his analyses of 55 words, the large majority common, "tracing word origins is a game of probabilities" in which the "centrifugal principle" should be favored when it comes to assigning a word's cognate. This principle is explained, "All conditions being equal, tracing a word to a native root should be preferred to declaring it a borrowing. In similar fashion, it is more attractive to refer to an ascertainable foreign source than to an unidentifiable substrate."
Liberman is a professor of Germanic philology at the U. of Minnesota and author of many books and articles on etymology and language. Most of the 55 words he has chosen for this first book of a planned series are simple words. Among these are bird, drab, ever, dwarf, gawk, key, lass, man, pimp, toad, and witch. Nearly every word is traced to a root word among the northern European family of languages, the basis for Anglo-Saxon and modern English. The word "jeep" is an obvious exception. A few of the words are controversial four-letter or gender terms.
While the author's "centrifugal principle" sets relevant limitations and preferences for deciding on the root of a particular word, the etymological practice demonstrated in his analysis of the more than 50 words is complex and depends on much scholarly knowledge. In these analyses, Liberman does not simply follow a line of apparent related words to a root word, as seen in most dictionaries, including even the esteemed multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. For Liberman's search for the most probable root entails assessing other respected etymologists' research and conclusions, comparing similar words or possible cognates from several languages, and arguing for why the particular root identified is preferable. In other words, Liberman goes well beyond simply denoting a word root. He aims not only to clarify etymology where able, but to unearth its complexity where called for both to correct errors and assumptions regarding particular words and improve etymological methodology and research.
Word lovers will find the lengthy, involved articles on the number of particular familiar and few obscure words engaging. Most significantly for the field of etymology is his methodology; which is both rigorous and flexible in reaching probable attributions for word roots. With scientific method (as opposed to the frequent presumptions and conventions), literary (i. e., writing) and reasoning ability, and incomparable scholarship, Liberman charts new paths in the field of etymology.