Even before a word is on my tongue, Lo, O Lord thou knowest it altogether Psalms 139:4
Ernest David Klein (1899–1983) the son of a rabbi, was born at Szatmar (Satu Mare) in Transylvania, which is now in a corner of Romania between Hungary and the Soviet Ukraine. The town changed hands several times during Klein’s lifetime: from his birth until he was nineteen it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where many languages were spoken, often several in one locality. Living in such a multilingual atmosphere may well have stirred his interest in languages and in their interrelationships. His formal education increased his knowledge of languages: for his Jewish education he needed to read Hebrew and Aramaic, and in school, apart from German, he studied Latin and Greek — both indispensable to an etymologist, and which he put to good use when later, in Toronto, he composed his etymological dictionary of medical terms (unpublished).
In 1920, Klein passed the examination required for becoming a rabbi, and five years later obtained his doctorate in Semitic and Romance languages at the University of Vienna. With the languages he picked up in his later migrations, he is said to have had a working knowledge of forty languages altogether.
From 1931 to 44 he was rabbi at Nove Zamky, then a Hungarian-speaking town in the Slovak eastern part of what is now Czechoslovakia. He survived the death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, and, after the war, officiated briefly as rabbi in his home town in Romania, and in Paris. From 1951 he lived in Toronto, where he was the spiritual head of a community of Hungarian-speaking immigrants, and lived in the same building as his synagogue. In the large single-roomed attic he kept his books and compiled his three etymological dictionaries.
Since early times, humanity has tried to find out why things are called by the words that denote them; the Hebrew Bible offers quite a few instances, e.g. Genesis 2:23. The Greeks called this: finding the true meaning of the word, “true” being etymos, literally “that which is”, and “etymology” meant originally “using words in their true sense”. This “truth” was found by deriving existing words from other words, in the same or in another language. The first known systematic attempt to use such connections not for speculation as to the true nature of things, but in order to discover the meanings of words, was made by Jewish scholars in North Africa, Spain, and later in Southern France, between 900 and 1350 C.E. They deduced the meanings of difficult Biblical words from corresponding words in Arabic and Aramaic, applying rules for which consonants in one language corresponded to a given consonant in another. In the 18th century the same methods were employed by Dutch and German Christian scholars in Biblical research. The first full dictionary to the Bible on etymological principles was that of Wilhelm Gesenius in 1810–12. By then an important process in linguistic science had begun: the discovery of exact “laws” which connected sounds in languages belonging to the same “family”, thus providing a safe scientific basis for etymological dictionaries (as opposed to bilingual dictionaries occasionally employing etymology). Etymological dictionaries were published for many of the languages of Europe, which resulted in increasing attention being paid not only to the sound-laws, but also to the establishment of rules as to which differences in meaning were admissible in comparing words. By the end of the 19th century a discipline of historical semantics had been established, which classified known changes of meaning. A great deal of research had also been done in that period on the processes of borrowing words and imitating the meaning or formation of words from other languages. Etymological dictionaries mostly list both “cognate” words of common origin and borrowed words.
The listing of etymologies and their use for establishing meanings was taken over by the first major dictionary of Hebrew throughout all periods, Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis (Millon ha-lashon ha-ivrit) by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, which began to appear in 1908, as well as by the later major dictionaries, particularly that by Even-Shoshan. Klein’s is the first etymological dictionary in the proper sense of Hebrew as a totality, comprising both the vocabulary current in present-day Hebrew — which includes a large percentage of Biblical, Mishnaic and Rabbinic, as well as medieval words used in earlier periods but not current in today’s usage. It applies the sound-laws with greater strictness and discusses cases where there are doubts or where more than one etymology has been suggested.
Before embarking upon the present Hebrew dictionary, Rabbi Klein completed and published in 1966 his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (Elsevier Publishing Co., Amsterdam, London, New York). His main innovation, in comparison with other English etymological dictionaries, was that with regard to borrowed words, he not only indicated from which words in which language they were borrowed, but also provided, as far as possible, the etymology of that word within its own background. For this reason the Comprehensive Dictionary includes a fair number of etymologies of Hebrew words. The same principle is followed in his Hebrew etymology dictionary, where the “native” etymologies of English and other words borrowed by Hebrew are given.
The English Etymological Dictionary was well received by the public, and there followed at least one further printing. In Canada Klein was rewarded for his success with the prestigious “Order of Canada” and two honorary doctorates from Canadian universities.