etymology (words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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(1) Etymology refers to the origin or derivation of a word (also known as lexical change). Adjective: etymological.

(2) Etymology is the branch of linguistics concerned with the history of the forms and meanings of words.

From the Greek, "true sense of a word"

Pronunciation: ET-i-MOL-ah-gee

Etymology in Literature and Newspapers

Authors and journalists have attempted to explain etymology over the years, as these quotes demonstrate.

Mark Twain

  • "Ours is a mongrel language which started with a child's vocabulary of 300 words, and now consists of 225,000; the whole lot, with the exception of the original and legitimate 300, borrowed, stolen, smooched from every unwatched language under the sun, the spelling of each individual word of the lot locating the source of the theft and preserving the memory of the revered crime."

Josephine Livingstone

  • - "Rote learning is better swallowed when mixed with lessons in etymology and the history of the language.
    "Learning about etymology can help with learning other languages, too. Take a simple word like 'justice.' You’ve probably known how to spell it for so long that you’ve forgotten that the ending (spelling the sound 'iss' as 'ice') is counterintuitive to a lot of children. Explaining that the word is borrowed from French, however, might make it clearer. Sounded out in French, the sound at the end makes a bit more sense (by analogy to a place like Nice). A very brief explanation of this kind is a chance for a short history lesson (French was spoken at the medieval court in England) and a reminder that children already know a lot more French than they realise.
    "Teaching spelling in this way may make learning it more interesting but also encourage creativity."
    ("Spelling It Out: Is It Time English Speakers Loosened Up?" The Guardian [UK], October 28, 2014)

Etymology in Academics

Academicians, linguists, and grammarians have also worked to explain the importance of etymology both in terms of word origin and spelling, as these passages show.

David Wolman

  • "As early as the 15th century, scribes and early printers performed cosmetic surgery on the lexicon. Their goal was to highlight the roots of words, whether for aesthetic pizzazz, homage to etymology, or both. The result was a slew of new silent letters. Whereas debt was spelled det, dett, or dette in the Middle Ages, the 'tamperers,' as one writer calls them, added the b as a nod to the word's Latin origin, debitum. The same goes for changes like the b in doubt (dubium), the o in people (populous), the c in victuals (victus), and the ch in school (scholar)."
    (Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling. Harper, 2010)

Anatoly Liberman

  • "The origin of words that reproduce natural sounds is self-explanatory. French or English, cockoo and miaow are unquestionably onomatopoeias. If we assume that growl belongs with gaggle, cackle, croak, and creak and reproduces the sound it designates, we will be able to go a bit further. Quite a few words in the languages in the world begin with gr- and refer to things threatening or discordant. From Scandanavian, English has grue, the root of gruesome (an adjective popularized by Walter Scott), but Old Engl. gryre (horror) existed long before the emergence of grue-. The epic hero Beowulf fought Grendel, an almost invincible monster. Whatever the origin of the name, it must have been frightening even to pronounce it."
    (Word Origins And How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. Oxford University Press, 2005)

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

  • The root-meaning of the name (from Gothic root gheu; Sanskrit hub or emu, "to invoke or to sacrifice to") is either "the one invoked" or "the one sacrificed to." From different Indo-Germanic roots (div, "to shine" or "give light"; thes in thessasthai "to implore") come the Indo-Iranian deva, Sanskrit dyaus (gen. divas), Latin deus, Greek theos, Irish and Gaelic dia, all of which are generic names; also Greek Zeus (gen. Dios, Latin Jupiter (jovpater), Old Teutonic Tiu or Tiw (surviving in Tuesday), Latin Janus, Diana, and other proper names of pagan deities. The common name most widely used in Semitic occurs as 'el in Hebrew, 'ilu in Babylonian, 'ilah in Arabic, etc.; and though scholars are not agreed on the point, the root-meaning most probably is "the strong or mighty one."

Simon Horobin

  • "[T]he term etymology . . . is derived from from the Greek etumos, 'true,' and referred to a word's primary, or true, meaning. But, if we were to apply such a concept to the majority of common English words today, this would result in considerable confusion; the word silly is first recorded in the sense 'pious,' nice meant 'foolish,' and buxom meant 'obedient.'
    "Dr. Johnson was attracted by the logic of such an approach when he embarked on his dictionary, referring to etymology as the 'natural and primitive signification' of a word. But experience led him to recognize the fallacy of this approach, as is apparent from the illustration he included in the entry for etymology: 'When words are restrained, by common usage, to a particular sense, to run up to etymology, and construe them by Dictionaries, is wretchedly ridiculous.'"
    (How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

David Crystal

  • - "There are hundreds of 'difficult' words where an awareness of the etymology can help us predict whether they will contain a double consonant or not. Why irresistible, with two rs? Becomes it comes from ir + resister [in Latin]. Why occurrence with two cs? Because it is from oc (earlier ob) + currere. And why is there no double c in recommend and necessary? Because there was no duplication in the Latin: re + commendare, ne + cedere. I find it hard to resist the conclusion that if children were introduced to some basic etymology, many of the 'famous' spelling errors would be avoided."
    (Spell It Out. Picador, 2014)

Related Articles

In addition to these examples and observations, also see:

How Words Are Made

Readers might also find interest in these articles related to etymology.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "etymology (words)." ThoughtCo, Jun. 20, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 20). etymology (words). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "etymology (words)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).