Etymology () The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) – p. 633 "Etymology /ˌɛtɪˈmɒlədʒi/ the study of the class in words and the way their meanings have changed throughout time". is the study of the history of the form of words and, by extension, the origin and evolution of their semantic meaning across time. It is a subfield of historical linguistics, and draws upon comparative semantics, morphology, semiotics, and phonetics. For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts, and texts about the language, to gather knowledge about how words were used during earlier periods, how they developed in meaning and form, or when and how they entered the language. Etymologists also apply the methods of comparative linguistics to reconstruct information about forms that are too old for any direct information to be available. By analyzing related languages with a technique known as the comparative method, linguists can make inferences about their shared parent language and its vocabulary. In this way, word roots in European languages, for example, can be traced all the way back to the origin of the Indo-European language family (except Basque). Even though etymological research originated from the philological tradition, much current etymological research is done on language families where little or no early documentation is available, such as Uralic and Austronesian.


The word ''etymology'' derives from the Greek word (), itself from (), meaning "true sense or sense of a truth", and the suffix ''-logia'', denoting "the study of". The term ''etymon'' refers to a word or morpheme (e.g., stem or root) from which a later word or morpheme derives. For example, the Latin word ''candidus'', which means "white", is the etymon of English ''candid''. Relationships are often less transparent, however. English place names such as Winchester, Gloucester, Tadcaster share in different modern forms a
suffix In linguistics, a suffix is an affix which is placed after the Stem (linguistics), stem of a word. Common examples are case endings, which indicate the grammatical case of nouns, adjectives, and verb endings, which form the Grammatical conjugation ...
ed etymon that was once meaningful, Latin ''castrum'' 'fort'.


Etymologists apply a number of methods to study the origins of words, some of which are: * Philological research. Changes in the form and meaning of the word can be traced with the aid of older texts, if such are available. * Making use of dialectological data. The form or meaning of the word might show variations between dialects, which may yield clues about its earlier history. * The comparative method. By a systematic comparison of related languages, etymologists may often be able to detect which words derive from their common ancestor language and which were instead later borrowed from another language. * The study of semantic change. Etymologists must often make hypotheses about changes in the meaning of particular words. Such hypotheses are tested against the general knowledge of semantic shifts. For example, the assumption of a particular change of meaning may be substantiated by showing that the same type of change has occurred in other languages as well.

Types of word origins

Etymological theory recognizes that words originate through a limited number of basic mechanisms, the most important of which are language change, borrowing (i.e., the adoption of " loanwords" from other languages); word formation such as derivation and compounding; and onomatopoeia and sound symbolism (i.e., the creation of imitative words such as "click" or "grunt"). While the origin of newly emerged words is often more or less transparent, it tends to become obscured through time due to sound change or semantic change. Due to sound change, it is not readily obvious that the English word ''set'' is related to the word ''sit'' (the former is originally a causative formation of the latter). It is even less obvious that ''bless'' is related to ''blood'' (the former was originally a derivative with the meaning "to mark with blood"). Semantic change may also occur. For example, the English word ''bead'' originally meant "prayer". It acquired its modern meaning through the practice of counting the recitation of prayers by using beads.


The search for meaningful origins for familiar or strange words is far older than the modern understanding of linguistic evolution and the relationships of languages, which began no earlier than the 18th century. From Antiquity through the 17th century, from to Pindar to Sir Thomas Browne, etymology had been a form of witty wordplay, in which the supposed origins of words were creatively imagined to satisfy contemporary requirements; for example, the Greek poet Pindar (born in approximately 522 BCE) employed inventive etymologies to flatter his patrons. Plutarch employed etymologies insecurely based on fancied resemblances in
sound In physics, sound is a vibration that propagates as an acoustic wave, through a transmission medium such as a gas, liquid or solid. In human physiology and psychology, sound is the ''reception'' of such waves and their ''perception'' by the ...
s. Isidore of Seville's '' Etymologiae'' was an encyclopedic tracing of "first things" that remained uncritically in use in Europe until the sixteenth century. '' Etymologicum genuinum'' is a grammatical
encyclopedia An encyclopedia (American English) or encyclopædia (British English) is a reference work or compendium providing summaries of knowledge either general or special to a particular field or discipline. Encyclopedias are divided into article ( ...
edited at Constantinople in the ninth century, one of several similar Byzantine works. The thirteenth-century '' Legenda Aurea,'' as written by Jacobus de Varagine, begins each '' vita'' of a saint with a fanciful excursus in the form of an etymology.

Ancient Sanskrit

Sanskrit Sanskrit (; attributively , ; nominalization, nominally , , ) is a classical language belonging to the Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. It arose in South Asia after its predecessor languages had Trans-cul ...
linguists and grammarians of
ancient India According to consensus in modern genetics, anatomically modern humans first arrived on the Indian subcontinent from Africa between 73,000 and 55,000 years ago. Quote: "Y-Chromosome and Mt-DNA data support the colonization of South Asia by ...
were the first to make a comprehensive analysis of linguistics and etymology. The study of Sanskrit etymology has provided Western scholars with the basis of historical linguistics and modern etymology. Four of the most famous Sanskrit linguists are: * Yaska ( centuries BCE) * (c. 520–460 BCE) * (6th-4th centuries BCE) * (2nd century BCE) These linguists were not the earliest Sanskrit grammarians, however. They followed a line of ancient grammarians of Sanskrit who lived several centuries earlier like Sakatayana of whom very little is known. The earliest of attested etymologies can be found in Vedic literature in the philosophical explanations of the '' Brahmanas'', '' Aranyakas,'' and '' Upanishads''. The analyses of Sanskrit grammar done by the previously mentioned linguists involved extensive studies on the etymology (called '' Nirukta'' or ''Vyutpatti'' in Sanskrit) of Sanskrit words, because the ancient Indians considered sound and speech itself to be sacred and, for them, the words of the sacred ''
Vedas FIle:Atharva-Veda samhita page 471 illustration.png, upright=1.2, The Vedas are ancient Sanskrit texts of Hinduism. Above: A page from the ''Atharvaveda''. The Vedas (, , ) are a large body of religious texts originating in ancient India. Co ...
'' contained deep encoding of the mysteries of the soul and God.

Ancient Greco-Roman

One of the earliest philosophical texts of the Classical Greek period to address etymology was the Socratic dialogue '' Cratylus'' (c. 360 BCE) by
Plato Plato ( ; grc-gre, wikt:Πλάτων, Πλάτων ; 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was a Greeks, Greek philosopher born in Athens during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. He founded the Platonist school of thou ...
. During much of the dialogue, Socrates makes guesses as to the origins of many words, including the names of the gods. In his Odes Pindar spins complimentary etymologies to flatter his patrons. Plutarch (''Life of Numa Pompilius'') spins an etymology for '' pontifex'', while explicitly dismissing the obvious, and actual "bridge-builder":
The priests, called Pontifices.... have the name of Pontifices from ''potens'', powerful because they attend the service of the gods, who have power and command overall. Others make the word refer to exceptions of impossible cases; the priests were to perform all the duties possible; if anything lays beyond their power, the exception was not to be cavilled. The most common opinion is the most absurd, which derives this word from pons, and assigns the priests the title of bridge-makers. The sacrifices performed on the bridge were amongst the most sacred and ancient, and the keeping and repairing of the bridge attached, like any other public sacred office, to the priesthood.


Isidore of Seville compiled a volume of etymologies to illuminate the triumph of religion. Each saint's legend in Jacobus de Varagine's '' Legenda Aurea'' begins with an etymological discourse on the saint's name:
Lucy is said of light, and light is beauty in beholding, after that S. Ambrose saith: The nature of light is such, she is gracious in beholding, she spreadeth over all without lying down, she passeth in going right without crooking by right long line; and it is without dilation of tarrying, and therefore it is showed the blessed Lucy hath beauty of virginity without any corruption; essence of charity without disordinate love; rightful going and devotion to God, without squaring out of the way; right long line by continual work without negligence of slothful tarrying. In Lucy is said, the way of light.

Modern era

Etymology in the modern sense emerged in the late 18th-century European academia, within the context of the wider " Age of Enlightenment," although preceded by 17th century pioneers such as Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn, Gerardus Vossius, Stephen Skinner, Elisha Coles, and William Wotton. The first known systematic attempt to prove the relationship between two languages on the basis of similarity of
grammar In linguistics, the grammar of a natural language is its set of structure, structural constraints on speakers' or writers' composition of clause (linguistics), clauses, phrases, and words. The term can also refer to the study of such constraint ...
and lexicon was made in 1770 by the Hungarian, János Sajnovics, when he attempted to demonstrate the relationship between Sami and Hungarian (work that was later extended to the whole Finno-Ugric language family in 1799 by his fellow countryman, Samuel Gyarmathi).Szemerényi 1996:6 The origin of modern historical linguistics is often traced to Sir William Jones, a Welsh philologist living in
India India, officially the Republic of India (Hindi: ), is a country in South Asia. It is the List of countries and dependencies by area, seventh-largest country by area, the List of countries and dependencies by population, second-most populous ...
, who in 1782 observed the genetic relationship between
Sanskrit Sanskrit (; attributively , ; nominalization, nominally , , ) is a classical language belonging to the Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. It arose in South Asia after its predecessor languages had Trans-cul ...
, Greek and
Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) around present-day Rome, but through ...
. Jones published his ''The Sanscrit Language'' in 1786, laying the foundation for the field of Indo-European linguistics. The study of etymology in Germanic philology was introduced by Rasmus Christian Rask in the early 19th century and elevated to a high standard with the '' German Dictionary'' of the Brothers Grimm. The successes of the comparative approach culminated in the Neogrammarian school of the late 19th century. Still in the 19th century, German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (; or ; 15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900) was a German philosopher, Prose poetry, prose poet, cultural critic, Philology, philologist, and composer whose work has exerted a profound influence on contemporary philo ...
used etymological strategies (principally and most famously in '' On the Genealogy of Morals,'' but also elsewhere) to argue that moral values have definite historical (specifically, cultural) origins where modulations in meaning regarding certain concepts (such as "good" and "evil") show how these ideas had changed over time—according to which value-system appropriated them. This strategy gained popularity in the 20th century, and philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, have used etymologies to indicate former meanings of words to de-center the "violent hierarchies" of Western
philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the systematized study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about existence, reason, knowledge, values, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. Some ...

Notable etymologists

* Ernest Klein (1899-1983), Hungarian-born Romanian-Canadian linguist, etymologist * Marko Snoj (born 1959), Indo-Europeanist, Slavist, Albanologist, lexicographer, and etymologist * Anatoly Liberman (born 1937), linguist, medievalist, etymologist, poet, translator of poetry and literary critic * Michael Quinion (born c. 1943)

See also

* Examples ** Etymological dictionary ** Lists of etymologies ** Place name origins * Fallacies ** ** ** ** ** ** ** * Linguistic studies and concepts ** ** ** ** ** ** * Processes of word formation ** ** Epeolatry ** ** ** **



* Alfred Bammesberger. ''English Etymology''. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1984. * Philip Durkin. “Etymology”, in ''Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics'', 2nd edn. Ed. Keith Brown. Vol. 4. Oxford: Elsevier, 2006, pp. 260–7. * Philip Durkin. ''The Oxford Guide to Etymology''. Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. * William B. Lockwood. ''An Informal Introduction to English Etymology''. Montreux, London: Minerva Press, 1995. * Yakov Malkiel. ''Etymology''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. * Alan S. C. Ross. ''Etymology, with a special reference to English''. Fair Lawn, N.J.: Essential Books; London: Deutsch, 1958. * Michael Samuels. ''Linguistic Evolution: With Special Reference to English''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972. * Bo Svensén. “Etymology”, chap. 19 of ''A Handbook of Lexicography: The Theory and Practice of Dictionary-Making''. Cambridge/NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009. * Walther von Wartburg. ''Problems and Methods in Linguistics'', rev. edn. with the collaboration of Stephen Ullmann. Trans. Joyce M. H. Reid. Oxford: Blackwell, 1969.

External links

* *.
List of etymologies of words in 90+ languages

Online Etymology Dictionary
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