Etymology Explained

Etymology is the study of the origins of words. Some words have been derived from other languages, possibly in a changed form (the source words are called etymons).

Through old texts and comparisons with other languages, etymologists try to reconstruct the history of words – when they entered a language, from what source, and how their form and meaning changed.

Etymologists also try to reconstruct information about languages that are too old for any direct information (such as writing) to be known. By comparing words in related languages, one can learn about their shared parent language. 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.

Basic ideas in etymology

  • Words may start with a longer, possibly more complicated form which becomes simpler or shorter. For example, lord comes from hlaf 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 meld, a blend of melt and weld.
  • Words may start off as acronyms, like laser.
  • Reanalysis may cause word boundaries to move. For example, a napron became an apron and an ewt became a newt.
  • 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

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 bouf, 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, kiosk, and sputnik from Russian; and lagniappe from American Spanish through American French; ketchup, kampong, and amok from Malay.

Lists of etymologies:

A list of the origins of computer-related terms
List of company name etymologies
Given name etymology


One response to this post.

  1. Dear Tauno,

    l enjoyed your Etymology Explained post.

    Perhaps you’ll be interested in doublets–etymologically related word pairs that, at first, seem to have unrelated meanings. Examples include:
    * cosmetics & cosmos
    * flatulence & inflation
    * infant & infantry
    * rectitude & rectum

    I recently wrote a book on the subject–WORDS OF A FEATHER–which provides a sometimes humorous (I hope) one-page essay on each of 150 such doublets. There are sample entries plus an interactive game at http://www.wordsofafeather.NET.

    Best wishes,
    Murray Suid
    Point Reyes Station, California


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