Memoir: Dr. Ernest Klein

(a man who dealt with the origins of words and their developments)

Klein's Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

Son of a world renowned scholar, Ernest Klein was awarded his Ph.D. At the University of Vienna in 1925. His subjects were Semitic languages and Literature; Romance Languages and Literature; and Philosophy.

His etymological dictionary is the result of a lifetime of study of all the western languages. Dr. Klein was conversant with more than 40 languages ranging from Old Greek and Roman to those in current use in Europe, while his special studies of Tocharian, Aramaic-Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew earned him the respect of specialists in many countries.

Above all, his dictionary was the study of the English language and this was said to give Dr. Klein his greatest satisfaction as is reflected in his monumental etymology, the result of twenty years of research.

Prior to his death on February 4, 1983, at the age of 83, Dr. Klein was working on his third work: a dictionary on medical terminology, which included biographies of 3,000 scientists. It was never completed.

Dr. Klein is said to have worked eleven hours a day, six days a week, for 20 years to finish his first dictionary of etymology. In February of 1975, he said, "If it will not be published by me, it will never be published." This prophecy apparently was fulfilled because there is no indication that it was ever published.

His work room was "a delightful mess"

According to Martin O'Malley, a reporter for the Toronto Globe & Mail in an article published on July 24, 1975: "What I will always remember about Dr. Klein, besides his unfailing courtesy, will be his library. It is such a delightful mess; notes stacked in Arrow Shirt boxes and Simpson's boxes, paperbacks piled on hardcovers, a Harvey's Hamburger slip used as a bookmark, an old Arabic book that he prizes stacked on a bottom shelf, papers of all sorts all over his desk."

"It is not a library in front of which a smug author would pose. The pity is that such men usually must die before their genius is fully appreciated."

"I am what my MOTHER and my FATHER made of me"


To know the origin of words is to know the cultural history of mankind.
—Ernest Klein

Between 1931 and 1944, I was Rabbi of the Jewish Congregation in Nové Zámky (Czechoslovakia), whence I was deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz and, from there, to the concentration camp Allach-Dachau. After the liberation from the latter place by American troops in 1945, I returned home to find only the ruins of what had once been the flourishing Jewish community of Nové Zámky. There I learned that my Father, my wife, my only child Joseph and two of my thkree sisters had suffered martyrdom in Auschwitz. Of my family, my sister Mrs. Paul Horvath (né Elizabeth Klein) and her husband have survived.

After my return I decided to write an etymological dictionary of the English language, the language which I had loved and admired since my early childhood.

This project materialized in Toronto where I settled together with my sister Elizabeth and her husband, and where my friends established the congregation Beth Yitshak, which was named after my Father of blessed memory, and chose me for their rabbi.

It was before all my sister who through her selfless love and infinite dedication, with which she has taken care of me, made it possible for me to devote my time to my congregation and to writing this dictionary.

Toronto, October, 1965
—Ernest Klein

Introduction (a few excerpts)

Since my youth I have devoted myself to philology, with special regard to etymology. The reasons inducing me to write 'A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language' may be summed up as follows:

It is a well-known fact that in the course of the last sixty years philology has attained a high degree of development. It is so much the more to be regretted that modern lexicography has remained far behind the achievements of philology. As a rule, even the most authoritative English etymological dictionaries give such etymologies as reflect the level reached by philology about half a century ago.

In most cases etymologies given up by serious science long ago are still wandering out of one dictionary into another and continue living with tenacity, apparently ignoring the truths established in the field of philology in the course of the latter decades.

English belonging to the great family of the Indo-Eropean languages, it is quite evident that in tracing any word to its source, an etymological dictionary must take into consideration all the important cognates of this word in the other Indo-European languages. If we want to understand the history of an English word, we must compare this word with as many correspondences as possible.

Some other features of this dictionary

What the elements are to chemistry, what the sounds are to music, are words to language. However, words are not only the elements of a language but also of the history of the people speaking it. They are important milestones along the way leading to the majestic Palace of Human Knowledge.

One of the basic features of this dictionary is that—in contradistinction to other etymological dictionaries—its aim is not only to give the history of words, but to give also History in words.

This dictionary is the first attempt to give the history of human civilization and culture condensed in the etymological data of words. We not only speak but think and even dream in words. Language is a mirror in which the whole spiritual development of mankind reflects itself. Therefore, in tracing words to their origin, we are tracing simultaneously civilization and culture to their real roots.

—Introduction by Ernest Klein

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