THE BARNHART CONCISE DICTIONARY OF ETYMOLOGY. Edited by Robert K. Barnhart. 916 pp. New York : Harper Collins Publishers, 1995.
Most readers who enjoy poking around in the histories of words will probably like this dictionary. Printed in a tiny, though extremely clear and readable font, and with its 916 pages of double-columns, it will provide many interesting hours of browsing and research to all lovers of language who like to know where the words we use came from, their evolution, and something of the submerged though potent freight of their connotations.
As might have been expected from a 'Concise Dictionary,' the derivations, which happily avoid the use of pesky abbreviations and symbols, are themselves fairly concise. Although some are much longer, most of them seem to run to an average of about a hundred or so words, but they should be found adequate enough for ordinary purposes. It quickly resolved a question I had about the word "ether" in Emily Dickinson, one that had stumped other etymological dictionaries.
Predictably, however, and like other current etymological dictionaries, the Barnhart Concise doesn't yet seem to have recognized the existence of the Sumerian language. For the word MAMMA (page 453), for example, we are given only the standard explanation and European cognates.
But, all in all, the Barnhart Concise succeeds admirably in achieving what it sets out to do : to give us concise though detailed and readable accounts of most of the words - 21,000 in all - that we are likely to be hunting for information about. The only real problem that I can see with this dictionary is that it isn't really a book, but is instead what the docile modern 'unit of consumption' has been conned into accepting as a book.
In contrast to the high-quality paper and excellent typography, the binding is two bits of cardboard covered, not with a handsome and nice-feeling cloth, but with rather ugly black paper. Who would have thought that a small piece of cotton or synthetic had become too costly for modern man to afford? As for the spine, instead of being stitched and durable and making for a book that will last and will open flat, it is simply - YUCK! - glued. I wonder when it will start to dry out and crack?
Curious that after a century of 'Progress,' and with our escalating spoliation of the planet, and our massive, advanced, and computerized technology, technology which has considerably reduced the cost of manufacturing a book, we seem to have become poorer than the Victorians and earlier folks, most of whose books were beautifully produced and are still as good as new. Still, I suppose someone must pay for those monogrammed driveways....
Any 'book' which comes in such a wretched and inferior binding, hardly deserves to be rated at more than a single star. But because the Concise Barnhart is one of the best dictionaries of its kind, and because of its legible text, I've given it four but may not be quite so charitable in future. After all, neither you nor I are mere 'units of consumption.' We also have feelings, one of which can be disappointment. Or am I the only person left who still likes things to be real?