Allan Metcalf: On the Origin of ‘Shyster’

tags: language, Tablet magazine, linguistics, Allan Metcalf, word origins



Allan Metcalf is a professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.

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.”...



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