When Etymonline.com turned 10 a few years ago, the anniversary invited a new “who did this” page. The old one still is where it was; this one is about me as maker of the Online Etymology Dictionary, which is practically the only reason most people would be interested in any of this.
I was born in 1960 and have lived all of it in southeastern Pennsylvania, in Chester County and on the Main Line, though I live in neither place now. I was raised among and in part educated by Quakers, but have no faith personally. I respect and encourage any religion that makes people generally better than I suspect they’d be without it. I could say I’ve lived my whole life in the compass of ground that has the Philadelphia Quakers on one end and the Lancaster Amish on the other. From nearness to them I learned the virtue of knowing more than one way to do a thing. I find it suits me to be rooted here, in one landscape, for long enough to know not just the sights but the names of the stars that go over at night and the weeds and spiders and the family history of the ruined houses in the woods and the rocks in the road cuts. One life is hardly enough.
Growing up I read a great deal on my own. Mostly old novels, poetry across the board, classics in translation, but I also loved the layman’s explanations of scientific topics written by George Gamow, Asimov, and others. Prose of the most prosaic sort is where I find the best writing done, but I’m not going to waste your time trying to convince anyone else that a history of Cleveland street railway cars is as heartbreaking as the Iliad. I could say the first book I read was H.A. Rey’s “The Stars,” when I was 4 or 5, but that wouldn’t be quite right. I didn’t read the whole thing, for one. It would be more true to say I taught myself to read only because I wanted to get what was inside that book — the information.
What I read is essential to what I write, but if you start listing titles it looks like showing off. After 40 years of reading I find works and writers that cannot exhaust my interest. We can discuss this later, privately. I was thought to be in need of remedial education for dyslexia; had the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome been known then, I have been told I might have been given that.
I went to a liberal arts college and got a BA in history, intending to teach high school. But the jobs weren’t there, so I drifted into print journalism. Actually it was more of a T-bone collision. That was 1983. Currently I work as a newspaper “copy desk editor,” a job that won’t exist in a generation and possibly doesn’t exist now.
When I lived and worked there, I wrote a history of West Chester and a local Civil War history book, both of them published by the Chester County Historical Society. These are eccentric, but I mention them because they are in the family tree of etymonline. A historian writing a book typically imposes a narrative on the past to make a point about the present, or to further an argument within his specialty. It’s not dishonest; it’s how they get anything done. But I have no truck with that; I’m interested in the past on its own terms. To write the Chester County books I immersed myself hours every day for years in censuses, old maps, letters, diaries, accounts, glass-plate photographs, deed books, minutes, newspaper morgues. I did not attempt to keep a distance from the past; I swam in it, and came up dripping. Those books are attempts to report the results of time travel.
I got online in 1995, I think, at the time when the Internet felt like a sub-world, an after-hours club for people who could man the tiller of Netscape Navigator and find an AOL dial-up number in their county. Those who were using it also were creating it. It felt like the natural thing to do — add to the corpus of fun or useful stuff online. If you found something missing, and you were capable, you did it yourself. You could learn basic HTML in about an hour by looking at the construction of other sites and fiddling with it.
This isn’t altruism: I made things online so I could use them. I made etymonline partly because I wanted a reliable place online to store research. If I searched for certain information and no one had made a web site about it, sometimes I started one. I was filling the gaps: under my name are web sites on slavery in the Northern states of the U.S., the 1860 electoral vote, an exposure of spurious quotations attributed to the Founders, and, somewhere, a line-by-line explanation of why “The Holiday Season” is the stupidest Christmas song ever.
At the time I was aiming obsession toward language, mostly sorting out the Germanic and Latin elements in the flow of an English sentence, to feel their different heft and torque. As is explained on the general introduction page, I went looking for a free, comprehensive, reliable online etymology dictionary, and there wasn’t one, so I began to make one. I got a Geocities site and used a Radio Shack computer with 4 MB of memory, which still is the most expensive computer I ever bought. I am no etymologist. I didn’t care about that. I wanted to test myself and try my hand at making a dictionary. If it was good, people might use it. If it wasn’t and they didn’t, no worries; I never was supposed to be any good at this in the first place. I’d be doing this whether anyone used it or not.
Etymonline just happened to be the one site I made that grew legs. Its birth is eccentric and probably unrepeatable. I couldn’t do it today; the technology has gotten away from an amateur like me. Some people call it a gem. If it is, it’s a pearl: The accidental production of an irritated oyster. Ask me why I did it and I’ll give you a solid answer. And tomorrow I’ll give you a different one. They’re all correct. I tease myself along through the drudgery with a combination of guilt and vanity. If I did this right, I can say at the end of life I bundled up my worst qualities — obsessiveness, impudence, narcissism — and made something vaguely useful with them. And now, thanks to social media, I have calved off a sub- or super-personality called etymonline, who speaks but not quite as I do and deals with the public in its own way and has its own Facebook page.
It is useless to try to hide these things. Any site done by one person is going to be in some deal eccentric and reflect the ego and cultural limitations of the creator. It is liable to the sort of blunders only an individual can make; because if you had had another mind riding shotgun with you you wouldn’t have gotten so far lost or missed that turn. A dictionary written by one person hangs the maker’s mind naked in public, exposed in all its intellectual flab and moles. When you do something vast and complex with no formal training, you know you’re going to be wrong a lot. The anecdote of Samuel Johnson and the woman at a party gets it right. She asked him how he could have botched some definition, and he answered, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”
When etymonline first went up, I wanted it to be anonymous or mostly so. I’d still prefer that. But people sought to know who did it, and what his prejudices might be, as well as his qualifications and methods. It’s a fair demand, so I linked the dictionary to what was then my personal pages and biography, so people could see me for themselves (as presented by me, of course).
My political ideas have no