Doug Harper

What is your background?

History major in college, lifelong reader, poetaster, amateur dictionary compiler.

What is your profession?

Newspaper copy-editor.

I never took a journalism course in my life, but I was a devourer of newspapers from the time I was 9 or 10. I used to read through the Philadelphia Inquirer every morning before going off to high school. I majored in history, got a teaching certificate, but the jobs and the pay were lousy then (1983), and while I was waiting for something else to turn up I introduced myself to the local weekly and they tried me out and hired me. I was a reporter for a few years, moved on to a daily. Generally the next step up from reporting is editing, which is stupid because the skills aren’t at all the same (like teacher –> principal, I suppose), so I ended up copy-editing.

I’m actually a pretty shaky copy editor, in the old sense of that job, because I don’t always see errors in writing. But a large part of copy-editing also involved knowing details, like that Rice Krispies is spelled with a K or that there was no U.S. Air Force in World War II, and I had a lot of that in my head.

The whole profession has shifted with the rise of computers, and “copy editor” now has much more to do with building newspaper pages digitally — which used to be done by layout and paste-up crews now long since laid off — than it does with editing copy.

(Followup) How did you start etymonline.com, an online dictionary?

The dictionary has nothing to do with any of that, I guess, except that my day job had become so rote and routine that it used a minuscule percentage of my mental energy. I got interested in the histories of English words in order to make myself better at writing, and reading, and understanding old books. I studied ancient Greek and Old English on my own and made a little headway in them, but I always enjoyed reading dictionaries and encyclopedias, and eventually I started making notes on etymologies of words, and the notes became systematic, and pretty soon I was writing a dictionary before I thought about it. This was circa late 2000 by my best recollection. There was no starting point, it just sort of precipitated out of my usual intellectual puttering. I do remember making it into a web site shortly after 9/11, so, say, November 2001.

The books [sources for etymonline] I use tend to contain a lot of academic shorthand, so I’ve had to learn that; also the best of them often are in German or French, and I find now I can read those language fairly well in linguistics books, though I can barely stumble through a German newspaper article and have no conversational French at all. 

What are your experiences with language?

I’m pretty much limited to English, though I can read Greek. I taught myself to read around age 4 and 5 (at the time, 1965, this was considered unusual and my mom later told me she didn’t really believe it until I started reading building signs out loud as we drove around town), primarily in H.A. Rey’s “The Stars.” I was very interested in star-gazing, and can still tell you the names of most of the visible stars in the north. It occurs to me I was not reading words familiar to me from speech (which is how it generally was taught then), but words like “azimuth” and “Ophiuchus” that I don’t think I had heard anyone say. My parents also read to me a lot, and I recall my dad reading “The Hobbit” at bedtime around the same time, which also was inspiring.

I am left-handed, was later informally diagnosed as dyslexic, and always got bad grades in handwriting. I should asterisk my definition of dyslexia. This goes back to the 1960s, and things were blissfully informal then. I spent a year in a Friends School and they gave me the only sort of abilities testing I had as a kid (I think only a few of us from the class took it, so we must have been flagged by the old Quaker ladies as oddballs). I know I used to make my letters backward and had some other such difficulties, and I don’t remember who told me or when, but somehow from that test I got told I had dyslexia.

That was the end of it; luckily they didn’t pluck me out and put me into some pedagogical body-cast to try to cure me. I also probably had more than a touch of what they’d later call Asperger’s, but thank GOD nobody noticed that or decided to cure it.

The dyslexia or whatever it was didn’t seem to slow me down as a reader, though I still notice I stumble more when reading out loud than other people do. Maybe all the reading I did trained it out of me.

But I also have another thing that it took me time to understand, because I thought everyone had it, and took me even longer to stumble onto the name for — synaesthesia. I’ve since read about people who had or have it in an astonishing degree; I couldn’t have had more than a lick of it, but I suspect it had much to do with how I read. It’s a sort of cross-wiring of the senses, which can become quite elaborate in some cases. Mine seems fairly simple. It’s how I know Tuesday is brown and Wednesday is blue and 4 is purple and 71 is silver with a black border but 72 is green shading into yellow. It makes it easy to remember a lot of things and easy to confuse a few, if they “looked” the same. Like 113 is very different from 313, but very similar to 331.

I don’t have to think about “its” and “it’s” (it’s intuitive) but I have to pause every time before I say “left” or “right” to make sure I’ve got the right one. I used to tell people giving me directions while driving to say “turn towards you” or “turn towards me.”

 Where can we find out more about your work?

etymonline.com. There’s a sidebar section with personal writing, probably some of it is in there.