Etymology is probably the toughest part of historical linguistics and probably the riskiest one – the risk is that you will look really silly with your etymological combination. Historical phonetics are tricky, as the laws are rejected and reinvented all the time. Etymology namely searches for the origin of a word and for constructing the archetype of the presumably primary form that could produce words in different languages of the same family, for instance the Indo-European. Sometimes the etymologists are seduced by the sequence of meanings and they try to stretch the phonetics in order to construct a new archetype, or they try to connect or challenge already existing archetypes. To make a long story short – in the golden age of Ancient Studies, there were even weeklies for philology, and in the fun part, there was usually a rubric with Klangetymologie, or etymologies made up upon the similarity of sounds. Little did these fine philological minds know that, in the future, the sound-similar ‘etymologies’ would be a basic part of pseudo-inventions of the remote past and modern identity of many nations, especially in the Balkans, but also in Asia, and that this garbage would be officially accepted and cherished, destroying academics and institutions on its triumphal path – and rationalizing this as a collateral damage… 

But enough of discontent with the present and back to happier times: My first serious task, when I was a student of Ancient Studies, was to help with reading to a retired blind professor, a genius of etymology. His name was Milan Budimir. It was an immense privilege for learning, as I had the right to ask my questions half of the time we were working, and my professor had a keen sense of equality. Free debate on almost anything developed during a ritual of drinking hardcore Bosnian coffee. My job consisted of taking out and checking in different lexicons, following his thinking of an etymological combination. Most of these lexicons were really heavy, especially the Liddell-Scott lexicon of Ancient Greek. Liddell was the father of Alice, the one that went to Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and the royalties for the lexicon helped in reconstructing the staircase in their Oxford home. There were also many lexicons that spanned multiple tomes, and the checking had to be done once, twice, and more. I developed hand muscles quite visibly and was later able to work in any athletically-demanding library, such as the British School of Archaeology, the French and German Institute and the Gennadeion Library, all of them in Athens. Looking for an exact quote or etymology or sequence of events or a text means not only lifting heavy lexicons, but also papyrological publications, epigraphical series (the biggest of all), to solve almost criminal plots, if a certain book is mixed up with another, and so on. One quote or word can make you jump onto squeaky library ladders and hang several meters high with one hand, while taking books out with the other and turning pages with your nose; to move contemporary metal stacks with a wheel which can be compared to the steering wheels on a ship in a storm; to plunge into an important study printed in Gothic German letters, while hearing yourself quoting Indiana Jones (“I hate Nazis!”), or just to move, with a shaking hand at the end of the session, several pounds of Pentelic marble cubes (British School) to preserve your precious books’ prey for tomorrow. There were other libraries, some of them easier, like the ENS Library in Paris, or the new National Library, also in Paris, which can be an excellent training space for marathon runners.  And life is a paradise in the new United Library for Ancient Studies and Art History in Paris, which occupies the space of the old National Library.

All of these physical efforts were and are necessary for a very simple reason, common to all sciences: Everything must be checked, verified, quoting must be exact, sources should be at least close to complete. If something cannot be verified, it does not count. Of course, the argument can be constructed without too many detailed proofs and references; the French way of academic writing proudly avoids many footnotes and references, counting on the knowledge of the reader. But in all of these and similar cases, everything should be verifiable. It is a pedantic and sometimes not very significant work, it can be preposterous and even cheating, but a good researcher or academic will do it for his/her own sake.

Much of the physical toil is saved in the epoch of computers and Internet. Since my first, an Amstrad PPC (portable) which weighed many a pound, my work results, publications, have been quicker and more numerous. There is a multitude of ancient texts on Internet, because there are no authors’ rights and royalties. Once I was curious enough to compare the manual work with lexicons, my basic tool, and Internet browsing: The manual work was quicker. Maybe I wanted it to be so…

When I started to teach, I noted that every course had to start with some kind of preparatory lessons concerning the damned verification, finding quotes, lemmas, composing bibliography, understanding the need for footnotes, where and why to put them, short signs and diacritic – all of this was a mystery for my students. Modern high school did not teach it, universities threw it out from serious programs. Worst of all, my students would quote Wikipedia, a magnificent work of collective curiosity and passion, but not always verifiable and reliable: It was the easiest way for them. My ban on citing Wikipedia caused a small revolution. I had to explain that even the name was not exact. It should be Wikipaedia, if it intended to imitate the Greek suffix which would relate it to Encyclopaedia. Eventually, this was accepted by my students as my eccentricity, and I used to start every course with an introductive eulogy of philological work, with a humorous insistence on physical work: They could swallow it that way.

With my old age, facing the immense superficiality of Internet communication, the crazy and lazy and evil trolling, the almost total loss of any wish to verify, criticize or argument, it seems to me that a good portion of the stupidity which reigns the popular culture and much of academic writing/discourse – not to mention the politics – is due to this loss. How much time and mileage is needed to pass from stupidity to self-destruction?