Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Open Source Or Open Sewer

As some of you know, I run a Web site called the Online Etymology Dictionary. In a few days, inshallah, it's going to be revamped with a spiffy new Space Age design, thanks to a brilliant and altruistic computer programmer named Dan McCormack, who took pity on my current construction of balsa wood and rubber bands.

I make no claims to any expertise in etymology. I've never had a linguistics class in my life, never performed any sort of etymology investigation on my own. But I have a pretty good collection of the standard book sources on the topic in English and German. And from them, I cobbled together this collection of the best scholarly work on the origins of English words.

It is a meeting place of those formidable eccentrics who created the O.E.D.; and of Ernest Weekley, footnoted in literary immortality as the husband of the exuberant Frieda von Richthofen, who left him to run off with his student, D.H. Lawrence; and of Ernest Klein, Rabbi of Nové Zámky in Czechoslovakia from 1931-44, deported to Dachau and returned home after liberation to find "that my father, my wife, my only child Joseph, and two of my three sisters had suffered martyrdom in Auschwitz;" and the anonymous 18th century wags who contributed to the "Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence."

Over the three years that it's been online, I've also had some very good advice from people who use the site, who do have a background in certain languages, who have been able to point me to better, or more recent, sources on some of the words than the ones I used. So while it never was my work to begin with, it's even less so now, which is gratifying to me. New friends from Turkey or Singapore or Germany add their chips to the mosaic, and the dictionary begins to be a work of the human race.

I also get a lot of e-mails like this one, which more than recompense me for the money I lose on bandwidth:

Thank you very much for your etymological dictionary! It is one of two online dictionaries which really deal with etymology of English words and not some exotic nonsense. The other one is Merriam-Webster dictionary. Actually, I have not tried it, I just trust the name. Unfortunately I faced some problems with subscription for it, because I don't have a valid credit card. Credit cards are not so widely used here in Siberia %) So, I can't imagine how I would write my term paper without

According to some correspondents, the dictionary got a mention recently on an NPR program called, "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." Actually, my girlfriend. Amy, told me that, too:

Amy: That's huge!
Amy: I wonder if you could get a transcript of the show?
Doug: I didn't think of that. Ah, it's not worth in. NPR. Feh ...
Amy: Oh, pooh on you! I think it's fabulous that you got a few seconds of national air time!
Amy: That's not a small accomplishment, even if it's NPR.
Doug: I'm holding out for something big. Like that Bulgarian news program where the anchors are all strippers and they get undressed on camera while they read the headlines.

There was no big jump in hits or anything (19,000 a day, which has been pretty steady since school started up again). I can't imagine that a radio plug translates into a Web site boost. It's not like people listening to NPR in their cars are going to grab a pen and jot down a Web address.

But maybe there's a connection between that and the uptick in e-mails from crackpot amateur etymologists pestering me to put their ideas on the page. People who don't know the difference between an amateur's guess and a scholar's work. And the number of people telling me it would be a "great idea" to make the dictionary an open-source site, that anyone and everyone could contribute to. Like Wikipedia. So democratic!

I tell them that's my worst nightmare. The Internet is already one big open source reference work. Anybody with a keyboard can create a Web site and announce anything as fact. That's fine, I don't want to censor the creativity of amateur etymologists. But historical linguistics is a science; it follows certain rules and requires a trail of evidence to prove an assertion. Some things shouldn't be done democratically. Some things should be left to experts. Brain surgery, for instance.

And the Internet already is flooded with false etymologies, a vast river of hare-brained stupidity and intellectual playfulness masquerading as scholarship. Don't believe me? Google "golf" and "acronym" together. I used to think that poetry was the worst thing to democratize and to teach people, "anyone can do this." I was wrong.