A University of Minnesota professor is trying to beat the clock to finish his masterwork: A dictionary of the origins of some of the most misunderstood words in English.
Anatoly Liberman is a 74-year-old linguist
who loves words. He has been working on this project for around 10 years. And then there’s the most daunting figure of all: 1,000, or the number of words he intends to include in his dictionary
. Each word must be painstakingly researched, analyzed, written up and polished.
There is a risk he might not finish the work. In lexicography — the art of writing dictionaries — age is the deadliest occupational hazard. James A.H. Murray, the editor of the celebrated “Oxford English Dictionary,” did not live to see the 10th and last volume, T to Z, in print. More recently, Fred Cassidy, the editor of the voluminous “Dictionary of American Regional English” (DARE), missed his finish line by 13 years. (Cassidy died in 2000. The last volume of DARE will be released in 2013).
But Liberman, a professor of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, remains upbeat that he will complete his magnum opus. “If I ’survive my well-contented day,’ as Shakespeare put it, I will finish,” he said, noting that he eats hot cereal and a fresh grapefruit for breakfast, and walks the 45 minutes from his house to the U, often composing or translating poetry along the way in his native Russian.