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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Etymology (/ˌɛtɪˈmɒləi/)[1] is the study of the history of words.[1] By extension, the term "the etymology (of a word)" means the origin of the particular word and for place names, there is a specific term, toponymy.

For Greek—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 and when they entered the language. 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".[2][3]

In linguistics, the term etymon refers to a word or morpheme (e.g., stem[4] or root[5]) from which a later word derives. For example, the Latin word candidus, which means "white", is the etymon of English candid.

Diagram showing relationships between etymologically-related words
Diagram showing relationships between etymologically-related words

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • ✪ Etymology and surprising origins of words
  • ✪ Deception of the English Language: Phonics, Etymology, Definition & Hidden Meanings
  • ✪ 10 Painstakingly Obvious Etymologies
  • ✪ Intro to Etymology
  • ✪ Occult Secrets of Language: Word Magic, Spell Casting, Phonics, Phonetics, Etymology


Do you ever think about words? Does "salary" have anything to do with "salt?"... and "sauce?"? How about across different languages? You can tell [Spanish] ESCRIBIR and [Italian] SCRIVERE are related to each other... or even [German] SCHREIBEN and [Dutch] SCHRIJVEN... but the word "write" is not related to them. The same way, "war" can't be related to [French] GUERRE or [Spanish] GUERRA... right? Well, surprisingly "war" and [Portuguese] GUERRA come from the same word... just as "insect" and "s-ex" have the same origin... Intrigued? Stick around, and let's look at etymology and some surprising origins of words. [♫] Hi! Welcome to Snap Language. I'm Marc Franco. Words have a life of their own. They're born, change, reproduce by generating new words and by spreading into other languages (like viruses)... and words even get old, and...die (they just fall out of use). In Latin, they used the word SAL "salt," to create the word SALARIUM. Old French borrowed that as SALAIRE. Later, English borrowed that from French as "salary." But what was the connection in Latin between "salt" and "salary?" Etymologists believe the word was SALARIUM in Latin because it was salt-money, or an amount to buy salt, which was very valuable back then. Historical linguistics studies language change over time. Etymology is a sub-field of that; it's the study of word origins and derivations and how words change over time. For example, AN OXA, MANIG OXAN in Old English became "an ox," "many oxen" in Modern English, And that's why "ox" still has this irregular plural today. Words also change meaning over time. (That's what historical linguists call "semantic change.") For example, originally, when NICE was borrowed into English from Old French, it meant "foolish." Then, over time, it meant timid; fussy or fastidious; delicate; precise and careful; delightful; and, finally, kind and thoughtful. We still have these meanings today, but we lost the original meaning, "foolish" (except perhaps when you say someone is "too nice"). The word "meat" meant any kind of food in Old English. By around the 1300s, its meaning had narrowed to the meaning we still have today: only animal flesh. Okay, I need to make a disclaimer here: I am not a trained etymologist. I just know enough about the area and find it really interesting. So, this video is not meant to be an in-depth study of etymology. That would be a really long video. "war" comes from Old French GUERRE. In late Old English, it became werre... well... guerre - werre... werre - war. That's how this one word (GUERRE) became what, on the surface at least, seems to be two very different words: GUERRE - WAR. Why study etymology? When we understand how words and their meanings change over time, we learn about linguistic processes; how people use words and change their sounds and meanings; how languages borrow words from each other and change their pronunciation to conform to the phonology the language; well... we learn how language itself changes over time—not just how it changed in the past but also how it's in the process of changing right now. Latin SAL changed in other languages into [Portuguese] SAL, [French] SEL, [German] SALZ, SALT. [Dutch] ZOUT... Then, from SALARIUM to [Portuguese] SALÁRIO, [French] SALAIRE... SALARY in English. Much later Japanese then borrowed "salary" from English as SARARĪMAN (to mean a person who works for a salary in a corporation... well, a white-collar worker). SAL was also the Latin root word for SALSA (anything salted). [Latin] SALSA > [French] SAUSSE > [English] SAUCE > SAUCY... SASS > ... > SASSY... At its core, English is a Germanic language, but it borrowed words from many other languages. It borrowed heavily from Latin (mostly through French). In fact, around 60% of English words are Latin in origin. That's two out of every three words! But then... if English words came from this Germanic language and Latin, where did those languages come from? Well, many ancient languages left written and historical records that allowed you to go back and study how they evolved over time into today's languages... But can you go further back to before a language even had a writing system? You see, etymologists are really good at back engineering. They examined written and historical records to understand how languages changed. This way, they could build backwards to reconstruct a "proto-language." Here, "proto" means the earliest form of a language. So, even without written records, they were able to model this proto-language that they call "Proto-Indoeuropean." As people migrated over vast areas, they brought this Proto-Indoeuropean language with them, and it developed into Germanic, Baltoslavic, Italic (that's where Proto-Latin fits in), Celtic, Hellenic (where proto-Greek is), and Indo-Iranian languages. That's a huge spread! Business Insider has this great animated map showing how—over an 8,000-year span— this proto-language spread all over Europe, Russia, and Asia, (of course, changing into other proto-languages along the way). Check below the video for the link. And what did this Proto-Indoeuropean develop from? Well, before that it gets really murky... you can't expect to go as far back as the first word ever uttered. (Say "the first word ever uttered" really a few times... Phew!) Etymologists believe the Proto-Indoeuropean root word for "heart" was *kerd. (I don't know how to pronounce words in these ancient languages, so use your imagination...) Then, through progressive changes in vowel and consonant sounds, *kerd- changed into words in ancient languages: [Greek] KARDIA... [Latin] CARDIO... [Germanic] HERD... HERTON... HEORTE... [Modern English] heart... "Heart" is also associated metaphorically with "courage" and "memory." From the root word to Latin CORDIS (of the heart) to the meaning "courage," [Italian] CORAGGIO, [Spanish] CORAJE, [Portuguese] CORAGEM... In Latin, from RECORDARI (literally, to restore to the heart), they got "remember." And over time, we ended up with "record," meaning to repeat, to get something by heart and then the modern meaning... I guess, when you record something, you don't forget it, right? But, of course, not all words came from Proto-Indoeuropean to Latin to English. Proto-Indoeuropean also branched into Proto-Germanic, and English actually developed from that (along with German, Dutch, Scandinavian languages, and so on...) The root *pəter branched into different languages. Following something called Grimm's Law, the sound /p/ in Proto-IndoEuropean becomes Germanic /f/ and /v/. And that's how we got words like [Italian, Spanish] PADRE, [Portuguese] PAI, [French] PÈRE, and [Persian] پدر /pə'dær/ but "father" FATHER and [German] VATER, [Dutch] VADER and [Danish, Norwegian, Swedish] FAR. In some cases, Proto-Indoeuropean branched out... from *bhrater to "brother" but FRATER in Latin. And then it entered English in a roundabout way as a different word with a related meaning. So, we ended up with "brother," "brotherly" but also "fraternal" (meaning... "brotherly!") From *dwóh to [Latin] DUO to [Spanish] dos, [Portuguese] DOIS, [French] DEUX, and so on... *dwóh became *twai in Proto-Germanic and gave us [German] ZWEI, [Dutch] TWEE, [Danish, Norwegian] TO, "two!" Then again, in a roundabout way through Latin: dual, double. That's why, in English, we often end up with so many different words with similar or even identical meanings, one with a Germanic and the other with a different origin, generally Latin or Greek. In the end, they often came from the same Proto-Indoeuropean root word that went through processes of phonological and semantic change, borrowing and re-borrowing and, from a single ancient word we ended up with two or more words in modern English. We can see that in these vocabulary words: broth, sap... or juice... or nectar; fear, dread... or aversion... or phobia; and so forth. Based on all these historical examples, you might think that this is all history, and English is now set in stone. (Oh, we've got plenty of words now. We're done.) Well, English is not done at all! These processes of language change are always happening in any living language. Sounds are changing, new words emerge all the time, old words take on new meanings... that happens slowly, so we don't even notice it very much. Take the famous difference in the pronunciation of "caught" /kɔt/ and "cot" /kɑt/ that we are losing in North America. In places where these vowel sounds have merged into /ɑ/, there is no distinction anymore between [SAME PRONUNCIATION] "caught" and "cot." Also, hardly anyone pronounces the H sound in words such as "where," "when" or "which." So, they're pronounced /wɛɚ/ and /wɛn/ and ... "witch" and "which" [BOTH PRON. /wɪtʃ/] have become homophones. Words are still being borrowed and adapted into English: pizza, balcony, latte, buffalo, acai, cashew, sushi, haiku, manga, schadenfreude, delicatessen, boss, lanai, and so on... It's kind of interesting, isn't it? Think about it... whether we speak English or Norwegian, German, Portuguese, or Polish, Russian, Bengali, Persian, or Kurdish... regardless! In a way... we're all speaking the descendants of some very ancient language, a proto-language, that was lost in time. Oh! Insect and s-ex! Proto-Indoeuropean *sek, "to cut." From that, we got words such as "dissect," "section," and "segment." In Latin, INSECTARE "to cut into parts," ... INSECTUM was used to mean "an animal that's 'cut up into parts' or 'has a body with segments.'" An insect! Possibly, then, *sek ... SEXUS because you 'cut up' or divide beings into genders... s-ex! That's how "insect" and "sex" are related words. Is that cool or what? Languages change continuously, so what do you think English will be like in 100 years? And in 1,000 years? If you're multilingual, have you noticed some surprising connections between the languages you speak? Always look in the descriptions under any Snap Language video for related links. In fact, this video has some really interesting ones. If you enjoyed this video, please share it and hit the "like button." Of course, if you subscribe to Snap Language on YouTube, I'll be very thankful... grateful. Thankful... grateful... And till the next time, thanks for stopping by and watching this video.



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.

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.[6] 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 origin.

When the Normans conquered England in 1066 (see Norman Conquest), they brought their 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 disputed.

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).

Many 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 tomato.


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 Pāṇini 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 sounds. 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 edited at 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.[7]

Ancient Sanskrit

The Sanskrit linguists and grammarians of ancient India 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:

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.

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. 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 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.


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 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.[8]

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 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).[9]

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.[10]

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 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.

See also


  1. ^ a b The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) ISBN 0-19-861263-X – p. 633 "Etymology /ˌɛtɪˈmɒlədʒi/ the study of the class in words and the way their meanings have changed throughout time".
  2. ^ Harper, Douglas. "etymology". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. ^ ἐτυμολογία, ἔτυμον. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  4. ^ 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. ISBN 978-1403917232.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ The American educator: a library of universal knowledge ..., Volume 3 By Charles Smith Morris, Amos Emerson Dolbear
  7. ^ Jacobus; Tracy, Larissa (2003). Women of the Gilte Legende: A Selection of Middle English Saints Lives. DS Brewer. ISBN 9780859917711.
  8. ^ Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend:  Volume 2 (full text)
  9. ^ Szemerényi 1996:6
  10. ^ "Sir William Jones, British philologist".


  • Bammesberger, Alfred. English Etymology. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1984.
  • Barnhart, Robert K. & Sol Steinmetz, eds. Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology. Bronx, NY: H. W. Wilson, 1988.
  • Durkin, Philip. The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Liberman, Anatoly. Word Origins...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. (ISBN 0-19-516147-5)
  • Mailhammer, Robert, ed. Lexical and Structural Etymology: Beyond Word Histories. Boston–Berlin: de Gruyter Mouton, 2013.
  • Malkiel, Yakov. Etymological Dictionaries: A Tentative Typology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • Malkiel, Yakov. Theory and Practice of Romance Etymology. London: Variorum, 1989.
  • Malkiel, Yakov. Etymology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Onions, C. T., G. W. S. Friedrichsen, & R. W. Burchfield, eds. Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966 (many reprints). (ISBN 0-19-861112-9)
  • Ross, Alan Strode Campbell. Etymology, with Special Reference to English. London: Deutsch, 1958.
  • Seebold, Elmar. Etymologie: Eine Einführung am Beispiel der deutschen Sprache. Munich: Beck, 1981.
  • Skeat, Walter W. (2000). The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, repr ed., Diane. (ISBN 0-7881-9161-6)
  • Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press; NY: Macmillan, 1879–1882 (rev. and enlarged, 1910). (ISBN 0-19-863104-9)
  • Snoj, Marko. "Etymology", in Encyclopedia of Linguistics, vol. 1: A–L. Edited by Philipp Strazny. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005, pp. 304–6.
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1403917232.

External links

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