From the PREFACE.
The object of the present volume is to draw attention to some of the principles that should guide the student of etymology in general, and of English etymology particularly; in order that any one who employs an etymological dictionary may be able to do so with some degree of intelligence and to some profit. It is much easier to accomplish this at the present date than it was some ten or twenty years ago. The steady progress of the New English Dictionary furnishes us with innumerable and indisputable instances of the actual usages of English words, so that the mistakes which formerly arose from a very imperfect knowledge of their history have largely been corrected, and much that was once obscure has been made plain. Meanwhile, the great gains that have resulted from the scientific study of comparative philology as applied to the Indo-Germanic languages have been properly formulated and tabulated, to the explosion and exclusion of many hasty inferences that were both misleading and mischievous. It is now possible to introduce science where once there was little but guesswork.
Such science is founded, as all science should be, upon the careful observation of the effects of well-ascertained laws, which have been laboriously evolved from the comparison of innumerable forms of words in many languages. A large number of such laws can now be positively and safely relied upon, because they rest upon the sure foundations of a careful study of phonetics. This study enables us to concern our- selves with something that is far more valuable than written forms, viz. the actual sounds which the symbols employed in various languages actually represent. The most important of these languages is Latin, because the Latin alphabet has been so widely adopted. Hence it is that all serious attempts to assimilate the lessons and results which have been secured by the strenuous labours of modern philologists must needs begin with a knowledge of the sounds which the Latin symbols denoted in the first century. The first requisite is, in a word, the correct pronunciation of classical Latin, and the lesson is simple and easy enough. When once acquired, there is very little more to be learnt in order to understand the pronunciation of Anglo-Saxon, and the remarkably musical sounds of the Middle-English period, especially as employed by Chaucer, who was as great a master of melody as the famous Dante.
A sufficient knowledge of the Chaucerian pronunciation will then afford some guide to the more difficult and somewhat uncertain pronunciation of Tudor English; from which we may reasonably hope to glean some of the reasons why we spell many words as we do. Most of our modern spelling, except in the rather numerous instances where meddling pedants have ignorantly and mischievously distorted it, rests upon the spoken sounds used in the time of our great dramatists by the best actors of that period.
The indifferent attitude assumed by the millions of English speakers with regard to the obviously important subject of spelling can only be accounted for by their almost universal ignorance of the subject. Not ten (or even less) in a million of English speakers recognize the fact that our spelling was, once at least, founded on phonetic laws, and that the object of our ancestors was not, as many suppose, to write in accordance with 'etymology' - except when it was too obvious to be missed - but to represent the sounds of the spoken words. And of course, the 'etymological' spelling of Latin words was really based upon spoken sounds also; so that the reverence paid to Latin written forms only carries us back to the phonetics of an earlier period, and furnishes one more argument for leaching every child what the Latin symbols implied. The strenuous attempts that are but too often made to evade this plain duty are deplorable for the pupil, and discreditable to the teacher.show more