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Supposed evolution of the word "ma"

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Etymology is the study of the roots and history of words; and how their form and meaning have changed over time.

In languages with a long detailed history, etymology makes use of philology, the study of how words change from culture to culture over time. Etymologists also apply the methods of comparative linguistics to reconstruct information about languages that are too old for any direct information (such as writing) to be known. 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 which 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, nowadays much etymological research is effectuated in language families where little or no early documentation is available, such as Uralic and Austronesian.

Etymology of "etymology"

The word "etymology" derives from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etumologia)[1] < ἔτυμον (etumon), “‘true sense’” + -λογία (-logia), “‘study of’”, from λόγος (logos), "speech, oration, discourse, word".[2] The Greek poet Pindar (b. approx. 522 BC) employed creative 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 fourteenth-century Legenda Aurea begins each vita of a saint with a fanciful excursus in the form of an etymology.


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 variation between dialects, which may yield clues of its earlier history.
  • The comparative method. By a systematic comparison of related languages, etymologists can detect which words derive from their common ancestor language and which were instead later borrowed from another language.
  • The study of semantic change. Etymologists often have to make hypotheses about changes of 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 can be substantiated by showing that the same type of change has occurred in many 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 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").

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 obvious at first sight that English set is related to sit (the former is originally a causative formation of the latter), and even less so that bless is related to blood (the former was originally a derivative with the meaning "to mark with blood", or the like). Semantic change can also occur. For example, the English word bead originally meant "prayer", and acquired its modern sense through the practice of counting prayers with beads.

Most often combinations of etymological mechanisms apply. For example, the German word bitte (please), the German word beten (to pray), and the Dutch word bidden (to pray) are related through sound and meaning to the English word bead. The combination of sound change and semantic change often creates etymological connections that are impossible to detect by merely looking at the modern word-forms.

Basic ideas in etymology

  • Words may start with a longer, possibly more complicated form which becomes simpler or shorter. For example, lord comes from hlāf weard, meaning "bread guard".
  • In contrast to the point above, short words may be lengthened by the fusion of affixes to a word. For example, elucidation (enlightening) comes from e+lucid+ation.
  • Longer words may also be formed by compounding. An example is bluebird.
  • Slang words may enter the common language. Sometimes, common words become slang.
  • Vulgarisms may become euphemisms for other words, and sometimes euphemisms become vulgarisms.
  • Taboo words may be avoided and lost, often replaced by euphemisms or a circumlocution.
  • Words may meld together to become portmanteau words, such as smog, a blend of smoke and fog.
  • Words may start off as acronyms, like snafu.
  • The boundaries between words may move. For example, a napron became an apron.
  • Words come from specialist trades (font), different cultures or subcultures, and even works of literature (chortle from Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass). Words may be named after a particular place (toponyms, e.g. china) or after a particular person (eponym, e.g. Achilles' tendon).

English etymology

Main article: History of the English language.

As a language, English is derived from the Anglo-Saxon, a dialect of West Germanic (as was Old Low German), although its current vocabulary includes words from many languages. The Anglo-Saxon roots can 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/ich; thou/Du; we/wir; she/sie. 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, much of which is borrowed from French. In fact, more than half of the words in English either come from the French language or have a French cognate. However, the most common root words are still of Germanic origin. For an example of the etymology of an English irregular verb of Germanic origin, see the etymology of the word go.

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 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 cognate with the modern French bœuf, meaning cow; veal with veau, meaning calf; pork with porc, meaning pig; and poultry with poulet, meaning chicken. In this situation, the foodstuff has the Norman name, and the animal the Anglo-Saxon name, since it was the Norman rulers who ate meat (meat was an expensive commodity and could rarely be afforded by the Anglo-Saxons), and the Anglo-Saxons who farmed the animals.

English words of more than two syllables are likely to come from French, often with modified terminations. For example, the French words for syllable, modified, terminations and example are syllabe, modifié, terminaisons and exemple. In many cases, the English form of the word is more conservative (that is, has changed less) than the French form.

English has proven accommodating to words from many languages. Scientific terminology relies heavily on words of Latin and Greek origin. Spanish has contributed many words, particularly in the southwestern United States. Examples include buckaroo from vaquero or "cowboy", alligator from el lagarto or "the lizard", and rodeo. Cuddle, eerie and greed come from Scots; honcho, sushi, and tsunami from Japanese; dim sum, gung ho, kowtow, kumquat, and typhoon from Cantonese Chinese; behemoth from Hebrew; taiga, sable and sputnik from Russian; and lagniappe from American Spanish through American French; ketchup, kampong, and amok from Malay. See also loanword.


  • Skeat, Walter W. (2000), The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, repr ed., Diane. (ISBN 0788191616)

See also

  • Lists of etymologies
  • Etymological dictionary
  • False etymology
    • Fake etymology
    • Folk etymology
  • Family name etymology
  • False cognate
  • Proto-language
  • Semantic progression
  • Suppletion

External Links

English words and phrases



Other languages

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. Etumologia, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, at Perseus Digital Library
  2. etymology - Online Etymology Dictionary