Plant with exposed roots
ThomasVogel/Getty Images

In historical linguistics, an etymon is a word, word root, or morpheme from which a later form of a word derives. For instance, the etymon of the English word etymology is the Greek word etymos (meaning "true"). Plural etymons or etyma.

Put another way, an etymon is the original word (in the same language or in a foreign language) from which a present-day word has evolved.

Etymology: From the Greek, "true meaning"

The Misleading Etymology of Etymology

"[W]e have to avoid being misled by the etymology of the word etymology itself; we have inherited this term from a pre-scientific period in the history of language study, from a time when it was supposed (with varying degrees of seriousness) that etymological studies would lead to the etymon, the true and 'genuine' meaning. There is in fact no such thing as the etymon of a word, or there are as many kinds of etymon as there are kinds of etymological research."

(James Barr, Language and Meaning. E.J. Brill, 1974)

The Meaning of Meat


"In Old English, the word meat (spelled mete) mainly meant 'food, especially solid food,' found as late as 1844... The Old English word mete came from the same Germanic source as Old Frisian mete, Old Saxon meti, mat, Old High German maz, Old Icelandic matr, and Gothic mats, all meaning 'food.'"

(Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics.

Random House, 2008)

Immediate and Remote Etymons

"Frequently a distinction is made between an immediate etymon, i.e. the direct parent of a particular word, and one or more remote etymons. Thus Old French frere is the immediate etymon of Middle English frere (modern English friar); Latin frater, fratr- is a remote etymon of Middle English frere, but the immediate etymon of Old French frere."

(Philip Durkin, The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford University Press, 2009)

Sack and Ransack; Disk, Desk, Dish, and Dais 

"The etymon of ransack is Scandanavian rannsaka (to attack a house)(hence 'to rob'), whereas sack (plundering) is a borrowing of French sac in phrases like mettre à sac (to put to sack)...

"An extreme case of five English words reflecting the same etymon is discus (an 18th-century borrowing from Latin), disk or disc (from French disque or straight from Latin), desk (from Medieval Latin but with the vowel changed under the influence of an Italian or a Provençal form), dish (borrowed from Latin by Old English), and dais (from Old French)."

(Anatoly Liberman, Word Origins . . . and How We Know Them. Oxford University Press, 2005)​

Roland Barthes on Etymons: Triviality and Satisfaction

"[I]n Fragments d'un discours amoureux [1977], [Roland] Barthes demonstrated that etymons can provide insights into the historical polyvalence of words and the transferral of alternate meanings from one epoch to another, For example, 'triviality' can certainly become quite a different concept when compared with the etymon 'trivialis' which means ' what is found at all crossroads.' Or the word 'satisfaction' assumes different identities when compared with the etymons 'satis' ('enough') and 'satullus' ('drunk').

The variance between current common usage and the etymological definition exemplifies the evolution of the meanings of the same words for different generations."

(Roland A. Champagne, Literary History in the Wake of Roland Barthes: Re-defining the Myths of Reading. Summa, 1984)

Further Reading