Word Play

Stewart Edelstein ’70 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.

by Allison Tracy ’66
photos by Al Fuchs

Stewart 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.  

On 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.

Citing 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.

Along 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.

The students easily grasped Edelstein’s examples of portmanteaus—melded words like motel (motor and hotel), electrocute, and Pearlygate (a scandal about televangelists). And they waded boldly into the world of Edelsteineologisms—words that he himself invented.

“Try this,” he challenged. “What’s 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 cameow.

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” or widowagerer.

As the lecture ended, students who had coolly dribbled in now applauded and approached him to talk some more.

It was an Oberlin moment.

What’s in a Word?
Words, it would appear, draw the human community much like honey draws bears. Edelstein’s 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 department’s resident medievalist. Next spring, John Wiley and Sons will publish the fruits of Edelstein’s enthusiasm, Dubious Doublets, an alphabetical compendium of seemingly disparate words that share common parentage.

It will be another Oberlin moment—one that demonstrates how the Oberlin liberal arts experience, with its exceptional faculty-student relationships, impels alumni beyond their fields of specialization.

“Mining words” is how Edelstein labels his etymological hobby, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 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.”

Edelstein’s 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 him—their 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.

Gaining the publisher’s attention was no easy feat, given that Edelstein lacked the typical entry credentials. He’s 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 today’s competitive publishing market, that guarantees nothing.

Nonetheless, Edelstein landed the contract with Wiley because words are his passion—an 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 Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman.

The alum’s 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 practices—the examination of witnesses, jury selection, opening statements, and closing arguments.

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