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on 29 February 2012
I think the repackaging of a book first published in 1884, in a smart new edition, is a bit of a con.

Anyone interested in English etymology might reasonably expect from the title of this book, and its smart contemporary cover,to be a modern work, and would be grievously disappointed if they start to use it as a practical guide to the origins of modern English.

This is not to disparage Skeat, who was after all one of the great pioneers of English etymology, and recognized as such by later scholars in this field such as Murray, Onions and Partridge (as the back cover points out).

Like most sciences, however, etymology has moved on, and Skeat is of limited value for practical modern use. Indeed it seems rather quaint today, and many words, especially foreign imports, are not dealt with, even though they must have been current in the English of his day.

I'm glad I now have a copy of this seminal work, but I don't expect to use it except to make historical comparisons, especially as some of its apparently authoritative roots are not considered correct, e.g. 'drub', 'girl', 'boy', 'strawberry'.

A comparison might be if one bought a late 19th-century book about physics, or evolution. Interesting, but hardly authoritative.

The fact that Skeat is now out of copyright must have been a major attraction to the publishers of this edition!
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W. W. Skeat was a leading light in the history of scholarship on the English language, and this book is one of the fruits of his labour. The origins of thousands of English words are given not just in reference to attested ancestral forms and known cognates, but also giving the postulated Indo-European root from whence they all came where applicable, thus supplying more information than any standard dictionary would.

Short appendices include prefixes and suffixes, Indo-European roots, homonyms and doublets (two different words with the same origin), and a section "distribution of words according to their derivation" which considers the languages from which English has taken words, along with many specific examples having taken some considerably tortuous routes via several languages.

Because this work is now a century old, it does not of course include many neologisms from the intervening period, and continuing scholarship may have different things to say about the origins of some words. For example Skeat has "orchard" as coming from a pure Old English combination "wyrt" + "geard", whereas more modern works tend to have this as Latin "hortus" + Old English "geard" > "ortgeard" > "orchard".

Archaisms include Skeat's use of the obsolete terms "Aryan" for what today we call "Indo-European" and "Anglo-Saxon" where today we would say "Old English", plus roots are written square root prefixed and capitalised, for example "√'BHA", whereas the modern system would write "*bha-"; for some reason, in the main body of the text the square root sign has not appeared in the printing, leaving an odd-looking space. Victorian sensibilities mean the lack of any naughty words - well, as Blackadder said to Dr Johnson, that's what every dictionary will be used for.

But despite this, at this ultra low price there's no excuse for any English speaker not having this on the shelf to learn more about the language. Anyone with a bit more cash to splash may want to take a look at the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
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on 1 March 1999
I carry this book around in my car, and have the unabridged in my office. They are incredibly useful source of insight - listen to the words people emphasize or repeat, then look them up here for "the rest of the story". The best of many etymological dictionaries out there for this use.
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