Out in the wilds of western Missouri, in Rolla, which is not far from the tornado-devastated town of Joplin, lives a scholar who has made etymology his life’s work. He is Gerald Leonard Cohen, professor in the department of arts, languages, and philosophy at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and grand impresario of American etymologists—as well as the world’s leading corraler of language historians, who often join him in tackling some of the most challenging puzzles of word origins.
Cohen does this through his unique self-published journal, Comments on Etymology. For more than four decades this journal has brought etymologists worldwide together in its pages, searching for the origins of everything from shyster to the Big Apple, from hot dog to hamentaschen, from gung ho to jazz. He also started a supplement called Comments on Judaica in order to preserve and present the linguistic notes of a single scholar, Nathan Süsskind.
Cohen named his journals Comments for good reason. “Comments on Etymology is a series of working papers,” he recently told me “And anyone who thinks that even the most careful research in etymology can eliminate errors simply doesn’t understand etymology. Errors are an integral part of work in the field and, I suspect, all other fields of research.”
His first major endeavor in this field, beginning in 1976, was a seven-year effort to clarify the origin of shyster. After he had begun his research, Roger Mohovich of the New-York Historical Society drew his attention to newspaper articles in 1843 about the Tombs, the city prison. Editor Mike Walsh denounced scammers who took prisoners’ money by pretending to be lawyers who would get them out. One of the scammers who actually knew something about the law disparaged his rivals by calling them shisers, British criminal slang for worthless people. (It comes ultimately from the German word for excrement.) Walsh misheard it as shiseters, and a new word was born.
Since then, Comments on Etymology has been the driving force for discovering the true origins of hot dog (late 19th century, joking about the use of dog meat), the Big Apple (New York City racetracks in the 1920s), jazz (baseball term from California a century ago), and dude (from Yankee Doodle Dandy), with important assistance from the independent scholar Barry Popik. A few years ago Cohen’s son said to him about Comments on Etymology: “This was your blog before there were blogs.” Now, in the era of the blogosphere, Comments continues to go against the grain. It is still published only on paper.
If etymology were music, Cohen would be conductor of an orchestra and a featured performer in it. The orchestra would probably be not a symphony but a jazz ensemble—because, like a jazz musician, he improvises, returning to the same theme again and again. When he has sufficiently refined an etymology to dress it up for formal presentation, he publishes it in more permanent form, in his series Studies in Slang or monographs like Origin of the Term “Hot Dog.”
Jazz, the great American word of the 20th century, is one of his favorites. Since 2000 he has published four drafts of a comprehensive article on the origin of jazz, the most recent covering some 167 pages. It too will eventually be published as a monograph.
To be skilled at that difficult science of etymology, you need to know lots of languages, ancient and modern. Cohen, who grew up in midtown Manhattan, got a good start by majoring in Russian civilization as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. With a Reynolds Fellowship for foreign study from Dartmouth, after finishing his bachelor’s he spent a year at Oxford, earning a diploma in Slavonic studies.
He then embarked on a doctorate in Slavic linguistics at Columbia University, for which degree he had to demonstrate proficiency in French, German, Russian, and two other Slavic languages. His dissertation, finished in 1971, was The Stress of the Russian Short Adjective: A Diachronic Study. He modestly admits that for a while he was the world’s foremost expert on the stress of the Russian short adjective—modestly, because that’s not a topic crowded with experts.
Meanwhile, with his graduate coursework finished, in 1968 he went to what might be considered the antipodes of Manhattan: Rolla. “I was looking for a suburban-type lifestyle—trees, grass, no crime,” he explained. “And the move to Rolla also offered me the chance to teach several languages.”
At the university there ever since, he has taught general linguistics and Russian, French, German, and occasionally Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And he began his apprenticeship in etymology. “Starting in the 1970s and continuing for eight years or so,” he has written, “I made a concerted effort to study as many languages as possible each day. The key to this effort was consistency.” Each day he would sit down with a pile of books about different languages—dictionaries and grammars, for the most part. And “each day I would try to learn something about a variety of languages, even if it was just one or two words per language, and hope that various insights would emerge from the effort.” At the peak of his endeavors, he relates, he was looking at 20 to 30 different languages per day.
The fruit of Cohen’s studies manifests itself in the variety of languages he knowledgably refers to in his articles and books. Here is a small sample:
—Origin of English strafe: overwrought anti-British hatred in WWI Germany and the ridiculing reaction it evoked
—Origin of the Linear B characters denoting A, E, I, U
—Carry the torch (for someone) possibly deriving from The Odyssey
—Origin of the name of the Indo-Iranians (arya)
—Possible lexical borrowing from Semitic (ancestor of Hebrew and Arabic) into Proto-Germanic (ancestor of English and German)
—Why Zhivago in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago?
—The Star of David: observations from the Jewish languages discussion group about its not originally being a Jewish symbol
One of Cohen’s most important achievements was publishing the etymological studies of Nathan Süsskind, professor of German and Jewish studies at City College, “In 1976 I attended the Yiddish section of an MLA conference and later wrote to the chairman with an etymological question about Yiddish,” Cohen told me. “He referred me to Nathan Süsskind, and when I next visited New York City, Süsskind invited me to shabbas dinner with him and his wife. After the meal he answered my question in detail. We stayed in contact and had a warm, very friendly relationship until his death in 1994.
“He was retired and had given up publishing, but he also mentioned that he had a drawer with various manuscripts in nearly finished condition. I was amazed that the Jewish scholarly community wasn’t beating a path to his door to draw out from him whatever insight he had to offer, and I was equally amazed that it was falling to me (a young scholar in Missouri and outside the field of Jewish studies) to encourage him to finish those incomplete articles.
“I promptly offered to start a supplement to Comments on Etymology, viz., Comments on Judaica, and to publish his material there. He agreed and eventually even became excited about doing so. I consider my encouragement and publication of his items toward the end of his life as one of the finest things I’ve done in my career.”
Süsskind, a meticulous scholar of Hebrew, Yiddish, and German, and a gifted writer, discussed biblical topics like:
—Rachel and Leah’s expressions about childbirth in Genesis 30, “She shall bear on my knees” and “I will be built up.” (Süsskind explains, “precious experiences of untold generations were preserved in a ritual where a barren woman would seek to become fertile by receiving a child directly as it came out of the womb into her lap ‘on her knees’ and raise it from that moment on.” Doing so would “build her up,” that is, make a barren woman fertile.)
—Jesus, the super-Pharisee. (In Matthew 24:20, Jesus tells his disciples concerning the pre-Messianic horrors, “Pray that your flight [to the mountains] be not in winter neither on the Sabbath.” Here he’s even stricter than the Pharisees, who would have allowed that “danger to life suspends the Sabbath restrictions.”)
and Yiddish topics like:
—shlemiel from the biblical name Shelumiel (Numbers 1. 6)
—shmeer meaning “the whole package”: not a Yiddish word at all, but from German
—Purim pastry hamentashen: why “Haman’s pockets”? because it recalls the story of Haman in the Book of Esther
With a circulation of under 100, Comments is not likely to be found on your nearest newsstand. But it is available to anyone interested in etymology, at $16 for an academic year’s subscription. “As for putting Comments on Etymology online, I have no plans to do so,” Cohen told me. “I’m in my comfort zone with the present low-key presentation of material.” If you want it, you’ll have to pay for it on paper too, with a check payable to “Comments on Etymology” and sent to the editor and publisher:
(Prof.) Gerald Cohen
Department of Arts, Languages, and Philosophy
Missouri University of Science and Technology
Rolla, MO 65409
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.