Monday, September 19, 2005
“On Language” 9/14: ‘Lost’ in Translation
Most reviews of Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” rave that Solnit has delivered an elegant work. But some of them also praise the way Solnit incorporates what she says is the etymology of the word “lost.”
“The word `lost,’” Solnit says, “comes from the Old Norse `los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”
But ask an etymologist and you’ll find that Solnit’s literature is better than her linguistics. Like many enticing etymological explanations, this alleged Old Norse origin may make for a good story, but it isn’t necessarily true.
“It is not even a theory: it is sheer nonsense,” e-mails Anatoly Liberman, professor of medieval literature and linguistics at the University of Minnesota and author of “Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone,” (Oxford University Press, 320 pages, $25).