I am always more at home in printed English, be it in books or DVDs with the captions on, just because it’s more accessible and expressive and stable. Sometimes, though, it’s more than that. There are times I just need to see printed words in front of my eyes: a kind of silent-printed-English white noise. Spoken English is just so much babble when I’ve been awake for too long, or when I’m well worried about something, or I can’t take the level of screaming swear words going on in other rooms. Glancing over a few words on a page is the equivalent of wearing smooth a worry stone. To do that, I need an excuse — trying to concentrate on the plot of a novel won’t work, because I’m sacrificing the entertainment for the visual/sensory aspect and would need to return to the book later when I actually wanted to read it. Having half registered the story already, I’d feel like I’d already read it even though technically I hadn’t, I’d just run my eyes over it. So, that doesn’t work. What does work, however, is an etymological dictionary.
An etymological dictionary isn’t like your average Webster’s or American Heritage paperback. It doesn’t give you usage or regional notes or tell you what anything means — it tells you all the words that borrowed and branched and blurred to make up a single entry for an English word.Etymological dictionaries tend to be a little pricey since they tend also to be thick and usually hardcover, so about six years ago I bought the first dirt-cheap ex-library copy I could find for 10 bucks.
The one I have is out of print — the older hardcover edition of Origins by Eric Partridge. (The paperback is being reissued on January 4, but it’s expensive: about $60. Try Amazon or ABEBooks. Check your local library for older editions and keep renewing, if you have to.) I don’t know what its merits are compared to other dictionaries, because I haven’t read any other dictionaries like that. I don’t know if any of the entries are definitive; many are annotated with the abbreviation for “possibly.” But it’s pleasantly dizzying, just trying to follow chain after chain of words and to speculate on how it must have happened. Raw poetry, almost.
Even following, though, isn’t required. If you have synesthesia, attach facial expressions or gestures to words, or are adept at creating sound symbolism, just looking down the list is the comfort — something like caffeine, or soft clothes [insert comfort object here].