or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, March 18, 2005

Homing Smidgen

Jim and I are very fond of reference books. Well, me in particular, because I always need to know the answer to something right away, but he does his share. We have French/English, German/English, and Italian/English dictionaries because every now and then one of us is going to ask, "What's the Italian for 'walnut'? I used to know it...." and the answer will be found. A number of regular old English-language dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, because it knows everything. A thesaurus. An atlas. Various other unclassifiables, such as dictionaries of Indo-European roots and dirty words. We used to own more, but when you move every few years, you get rid of books that the Internet handily replaces.

The OED is a never-emptying well of information; I invariably turn to it when I want to know when a word entered the language or where it came from, and it rarely disappoints. But sometimes I see the unfortunate legend "Origin unknown". How can the OED not know? Why doesn't it just make something up? I'd believe it.

A few days ago I needed to know the origin of the word "smidgen". I'm fairly sure that when I got home from work I said, "I have a headache--not too bad, just a smidgen," and as soon as the word left my mouth I needed to know its provenance. It sounds kind of Dutch, doesn't it? Not to the OED. Origin unknown. Maybe it's distantly related to "smut". Or maybe not. It's all monumentally unsatisfying, particularly to someone who thinks that everything is eventually knowable.


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