Etymology (/ˌɛtɪˈmɒlədʒi/) is the study of the history of
words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over
time. By extension, the term "the etymology (of a word)" means the
origin of the particular word.
For a language such as Greek with a long written history, etymologists
make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to
gather knowledge about how words were used during earlier periods of
their history and when they entered the languages in question.
Etymologists also apply the methods of comparative linguistics to
reconstruct information about languages 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 have been
found that can be traced all the way back to the origin of, for
instance, the Indo-European language family.
Even though etymological research originally grew 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 ἐτυμολογία
(etumología), itself from ἔτυμον (étumon), meaning "true
sense", and the suffix -logia, denoting "the study of".
In linguistics, the term etymon refers to a word or morpheme (e.g.,
stem or root) from which a later word derives. For example, the
Latin word candidus, which means "white", is the etymon of English
Diagram showing relationships between etymologically-related words
2 Types of word origins
3 English language
3.1 Assimilation of foreign words
4.1 Ancient Sanskrit
4.2 Ancient Greco-Roman
4.4 Modern era
5 See also
8 External links
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.
History of the English language
English derives from
Old English (sometimes referred to as
Anglo-Saxon), a West Germanic variety, although its current vocabulary
includes words from many languages. The
Old English roots may be
seen in the similarity of numbers in English and German, particularly
seven/sieben, eight/acht, nine/neun, and ten/zehn. Pronouns are also
cognate: I/mine/me and ich/mein/mich; thou/thine/thee and
du/dein/dich; we/wir and us/uns; she/sie; your/ihr. However, language
change has eroded many grammatical elements, such as the noun case
system, which is greatly simplified in modern English, and certain
elements of vocabulary, some of which are borrowed from French.
Although many of the words in the English lexicon come from Romance
languages, most of the common words used in English are of Germanic
Normans conquered England in 1066 (see Norman Conquest), they
Norman language with them. During the Anglo-Norman
period, which united insular and continental territories, the ruling
class spoke Anglo-Norman, while the peasants spoke the vernacular
English of the time. Anglo-Norman was the conduit for the introduction
of French into England, aided by the circulation of Langue d'oïl
literature from France.
This led to many paired words of French and English origin. For
example, beef is related, through borrowing, to modern French bœuf,
veal to veau, pork to porc, and poultry to poulet. All these words,
French and English, refer to the meat rather than to the animal. Words
that refer to farm animals, on the other hand, tend to be cognates of
words in other Germanic languages. For example, swine/Schwein,
cow/Kuh, calf/Kalb, and sheep/Schaf. The variant usage has been
explained by the proposition that it was the Norman rulers who mostly
ate meat (an expensive commodity) and the Anglo-Saxons who farmed the
animals. This explanation has passed into common folklore but has been
Assimilation of foreign words
English has proved accommodating to words from many languages.
Scientific terminology, for example, relies heavily on words of Latin
and Greek origin, but there are a great many non-scientific examples.
Spanish has contributed many words, particularly in the southwestern
United States. Examples include buckaroo, alligator, rodeo, savvy, and
states' names such as Colorado and Florida. Albino, palaver, lingo,
verandah, and coconut from Portuguese; diva and prima donna from
Italian. Modern French has contributed café, cinema, naive, nicotine
and many more.
Smorgasbord, slalom, and ombudsman are from Swedish, Norwegian and
Danish; sauna from Finnish; adobe, alcohol, algebra, algorithm,
apricot, assassin, caliber, cotton, hazard, jacket, jar, julep,
mosque, Muslim, orange, safari, sofa, and zero from Arabic (often via
other languages); behemoth, hallelujah, Satan, jubilee, and rabbi from
Hebrew; taiga, steppe, Bolshevik, and sputnik from Russian.
Bandanna, bungalow, dungarees, guru, karma, and pundit come from Urdu,
Hindi and ultimately Sanskrit; curry from Tamil; honcho, sushi, and
tsunami from Japanese; dim sum, gung ho, kowtow, kumquat and typhoon
from Cantonese. Kampong and amok are from Malay; and boondocks from
the Tagalog word for hills or mountains, bundok. Ketchup derives from
one or more
South-East Asia and
East Indies words for fish sauce or
soy sauce, likely by way of Chinese, though the precise path is
unclear: Malay kicap, Indonesian ketjap, Chinese Min Nan kê-chiap and
cognates in other Chinese dialects.
Surprisingly few loanwords, however, come from other languages native
to the British Isles. Those that exist include coracle, cromlech and
(probably) flannel, gull and penguin from Welsh; galore and whisky
from Scottish Gaelic; phoney, trousers, and Tory from Irish; and eerie
and canny from Scots (or related Northern English dialects).
Canadian English and
American English words (especially but not
exclusively plant and animal names) are loanwords from Indigenous
American languages, such as barbecue, bayou, chili, chipmunk, hooch,
hurricane, husky, mesquite, opossum, pecan, squash, toboggan, and
Lists of English words by country or language of origin
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
Pindar to Sir Thomas Browne, etymology had been a form of witty
wordplay, in which the supposed origins of words were changed to
satisfy contemporary requirements.
The Greek poet
Pindar (born in approximately 522 BCE) employed
creative etymologies to flatter his patrons.
etymologies insecurely based on fancied resemblances in sounds.
Isidore of Seville's
Etymologiae was an encyclopedic tracing of "first
things" that remained uncritically in use in Europe until the
Etymologicum genuinum is a grammatical encyclopedia
Constantinople in the ninth century, one of several similar
Byzantine works. The thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea, as written by
Jacobus de Vorgagine, begins each vita of a saint with a fanciful
excursus in the form of an etymology.
Main article: Nirukta
Sanskrit linguists and grammarians of ancient
India were the first
to make a comprehensive analysis of linguistics and etymology. The
Sanskrit etymology has provided Western scholars with the
basis of historical linguistics and modern etymology. Four of the most
Sanskrit linguists are:
Yaska (c. 6th–5th centuries BCE)
Pāṇini (c. 520–460 BCE)
Kātyāyana (2nd century BCE)
Patañjali (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
Indo-Aryans considered sound and speech itself to be sacred and, for
them, the words of the sacred
Vedas contained deep encoding of the
mysteries of the soul and God.
One of the earliest philosophical texts of the Classical Greek period
to address etymology was the
Socratic dialogue Cratylus (c. 360 BCE)
by Plato. During much of the dialogue,
Socrates makes guesses as to
the origins of many words, including the names of the gods. In his
Pindar spins complimentary etymologies to flatter his patrons.
Plutarch (Life of Numa Pompilius) spins an etymology for pontifex
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 over all. Others make the word refer to
exceptions of impossible cases; the priests were to perform all the
duties possible to them; if anything lay beyond their power, the
exception was not to be cavilled at. 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.
Main article: Medieval etymology
Isidore of Seville
Isidore of Seville compiled a volume of etymologies to illuminate the
triumph of religion. Each saint's legend in Jacob de Voragine's
Legenda Aurea begins with an etymological discourse on the saint's
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.
Further information: Comparative method
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 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
The origin of modern historical linguistics is often traced to Sir
William Jones, a Welsh philologist living in India, who in 1782
observed the genetic relationship between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.
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
Friedrich Nietzsche 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.
Lists of etymologies
Pseudoscientific language comparison
Wörter und Sachen
^ a b
The New Oxford Dictionary of English
The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)
ISBN 0-19-861263-X – p. 633 "
the study of the class in words and the way their meanings have
changed throughout time".
^ Harper, Douglas. "etymology". Online
^ ἐτυμολογία, ἔτυμον. Liddell, Henry George; Scott,
Robert; A Greek–English
Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
^ According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, the ultimate etymon of the English
word machine is the Proto-Indo-European stem *māgh "be able to", see
p. 174, Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical
Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan.
^ According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, the co-etymon of the Israeli word
glida "ice cream" is the Hebrew root gld "clot", see p. 132,
Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in
Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232.
^ The American educator: a library of universal knowledge ..., Volume
3 By Charles Smith Morris, Amos Emerson Dolbear
^ Jacobus; Tracy, Larissa (2003). Women of the Gilte Legende: A
Selection of Middle English Saints Lives. DS Brewer.
^ Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend: Volume 2 (full text)
^ Szemerényi 1996:6
^ "Sir William Jones, British philologist".
Skeat, Walter W. (2000). The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology,
repr ed., Diane. (ISBN 0-7881-9161-6)
Skeat, Walter W. (1963). An Etymological Dictionary of the English
Language. (ISBN 0-19-863104-9)
Snoj, Marko (2005). Etymology. In: Strazny, Philipp (ed.).
Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, vol. 1:
A–L, pp. 304–306.
C. T. Onions, G. W. S. Friedrichsen, R. W. Burchfield, (1966,
reprinted 1992, 1994). Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.
Liberman, Anatoly (2005).
Word Origins...and How We Know Them:
Etymology for Everyone. (ISBN 0-19-516147-5)
Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in
Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232.
Hayakawa, Isamu, (2014). A Historical Dictionary of Japanese Words
Used in English. Revised and Corrected Edition. Amazon (Tokyo:
Look up etymology in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Media related to
Etymology at Wikimedia Commons
Etymology at Curlie (based on DMOZ).
List of etymologies of words in 90+ languages.