Edelstein 70 attributes his love of words to his former Oberlin
professor and mentor Robert Longsworth. The pair reunited in Oberlin
recently, along with story author Allison Tracy 66.
Allison Tracy 66
photos by Al Fuchs
Edelstein '70 (top left) attributes his love of words to his
former OBerlin English professor and mentor Robert Longsworth.
The pair reunited in Oberlin recently, along with story author
Allison Tracy '66.
a sleepy Saturday afternoon in January, laughter and verbal play
erupted from room 215 Wilder Hall, where some 30 students showed
up for a talk on eglish etymology given by a total unknown: Stewart
Edelstein, Oberlin Class of 1970.
sources such as Dr. Seuss and hypotheses such as the Bow-Wow
theory of linguistics (the notion that language evolves from imitation),
Edelstein cheerfully mapped the 5,000-year evolution of our English
family tree from its Indo-European roots and Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon
offshoots to the grafted branches of foreign derivatives, eponyms,
onomatopoeias, and neologisms.
the way, he threw out challenges, which the students fielded deftly
with answers gleaned from Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, SAT exams,
eclectic reading, and their own experiences. His audience easily
defined the term palindrome (a word spelled the same backwards
and forwards); knew when to expect the next palindromic year (110
years from now); and came forward with quick semordnilaps
(words that spell a new word when read backwards), such as nap,
was, and star.
students easily grasped Edelsteins examples of portmanteausmelded
words like motel (motor and hotel), electrocute, and Pearlygate
(a scandal about televangelists). And they waded boldly into the
world of Edelsteineologismswords that he himself invented.
this, he challenged. Whats a word for the brief
appearance of a cat in a movie?
Catsnap? offered a student.
Well, yeah, but this is simpler, he said, spelling out
And how about the most wicked demon? The answer is devilest,
with the emphasis on evil, which the students guessed right off.
Good for you! Edelstein crowed. But they were slower
to solve a rich betting woman whose husband has died
As the lecture ended, students who had coolly dribbled in now applauded
and approached him to talk some more.
was an Oberlin moment.
in a Word?
Words, it would appear, draw the human community much like honey
draws bears. Edelsteins passion for the geneology of words
began during his first Oberlin semester in 1966, specifically during
History of the English Language (HEL) with Robert Longsworth,
who retired last June after 38 years as the departments resident
medievalist. Next spring, John Wiley and Sons will publish the fruits
of Edelsteins enthusiasm, Dubious Doublets, an alphabetical
compendium of seemingly disparate words that share common parentage.
will be another Oberlin momentone that demonstrates how the
Oberlin liberal arts experience, with its exceptional faculty-student
relationships, impels alumni beyond their fields of specialization.
words is how Edelstein labels his etymological hobby, echoing
Ralph Waldo Emersons description of words as fossil
poetry. In his introduction to Dubious Doublets, Edelstein
hearkens us to jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes pretty metaphor:
A word is not a crystal, transparent, and unchanged,
but rather, the skin of a living thought.
interest in the topic is almost Darwinian; he seeks out the original
concepts that shaped the evolution of a word to spawn generations
of new forms. The geography of words fascinates himtheir travels
through time in the vocabularies of conquerors, barbarians, and
immigrants, and today, through cyberspace, recognizable mostly as
acronyms or PCisms. His book offers a broad liberal
arts view of the English language; Wiley and Sons dubs it an
evergreen with potential for a long shelf life and marketing
spin-offs such as Doublet-a-Day calendars.
the publishers attention was no easy feat, given that Edelstein
lacked the typical entry credentials. Hes not an academic
with documented expertise. Nor is he a journalist like William Safire
with a body of clips about language currency, although Safire once
credited Edelstein in his New York Times column for properly
disabusing him of an etymological error. The Times also published
an Edelstein-authored op-ed piece about eponyms. But in todays
competitive publishing market, that guarantees nothing.
Nonetheless, Edelstein landed the contract with Wiley because words
are his passionan obsession that has sparked many unique partnerships.
Witness the long collegial relationship between Professor James
Murray and Dr. William Chester Minor in developing the first Oxford
English Dictionary, as documented in Simon Winchesters
The Professor and the Madman.
alums preferred approach to etymology is not irrelevant to
how he earns his living. He is a trial lawyer dealing in commercial
litigation, where persuasion and case precedents are central. In
the Oberlin tradition, he has carried it a step further as a tutor
in clinical studies at Yale Law School, teaching a nuts-and-bolts
course in courtroom practicesthe examination of witnesses,
jury selection, opening statements, and closing arguments.
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