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Supposed evolution of the word "ma"

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

For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages, and texts about the languages, to gather knowledge about how words were used at earlier stages, and when they entered the languages in question. 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 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 done on language families where little or no early documentation is available, such as Uralic and Austronesian.

Etymology of the word

The word "etymology" ( ) derives from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etumologia) ἔτυμον (etumon), “‘true sense’” + -λογία (-logia), “‘study of’”, from (logos), "speech, oration, discourse, word". 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 Constantinoplemarker 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.

English language

English is derived from Anglo-Saxon, a West Germanic variety, 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/mine/me ich/mein/mich; thou/thine/thee du/dein/dich; we/wir us/uns; 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. Though more than half of the words in English either come from the French language or have a French cognate, most of the common words used 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. Days of the week are derived from old Norse: Monday [Moondæg] Tuesday [Twiesdæg] Wednesday [Wodensdæg] Thursday [Thorsdæg] Friday [Friedæg] Saturday [Saternesdæg] Sunday [Sunnandæg]

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, as well as the native Celtic languages. 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, veal with , pork with , and poultry with . All these cognate words, French and English, refer to the meat rather than to the animal. This relationship carries over into the names for farm animals where the cognate is with modern German. For example swine/Schwein; cow/Kuh; calf/Kalb; 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 lore, but has been disputed.

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 , , and . In many cases, the English form of the word is more conservative (that is, has changed less) than the French form. Polysyllabic words in English also carry connotations of better education or politeness.

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 south-western United States. Examples include buckaroo from vaquero or "cowboy", alligator from el lagarto or "the lizard", rodeo and savvy; states names such as Colorado and Florida. Cuddle, eerie and greed come from Scots; albino, palaver, verandah and coconut from Portuguese; diva, prima donna, pasta and umbrella from Italian; adobe, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, apricot, assassin, caliber, cotton, hazard, jacket, jar, julep, mosque, Muslim, orange, safari, sofa and zero from Arabic; honcho, sushi, and tsunami from Japanese; dim sum, gung ho, kowtow, kumquat, ketchup, and typhoon from Cantonese Chinese; behemoth, hallelujah, Satan, jubilee, and rabbi from Hebrew; taiga, sable and sputnik from Russian; galore, whiskey, phoney, trousers and Tory from Irish; brahman, guru, karma, pandit from Sanskrit; kampong and amok from Malay; Smorgasbord and ombudsman from Swedish; and boondocks from the Tagalog word bundok. See also loanword.


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, with its roots no deeper than the 18th century. From Antiquity through the 17th century, from to Pindar to Sir Thomas Browne, etymology had been a form of witty wordplay, in which the supposed origins of words were changed to satisfy contemporary requirements.

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 the basis of historical linguistics and modern etymology. Four of the most famous Sanskrit linguists are:

  • Yaska (c. 6th-5th centuries BCE)
  • (c. 520-460 BCE)
  • (2nd century BCE)
  • (2nd century BCE)

Though they are not the earliest Sanskrit grammarians, they follow a line of more ancient grammar people of Sanskrit dating back up to several centuries earlier. 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 of the previously mentioned linguists involve 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 deal with etymology was the Socratic dialogue Cratylus (c. 360 BC) 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 ("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 any thing 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.

Plutarch's etymology of "syncretism", involving Cretansmarker banding together, rather than a parallel to concrete or accrete, is uncritically accepted even today (see Syncretism). Degrading and insulting pseudo-etymologies were a standard weapon of Jerome's arsenal of sarcasm.A modern false etymology claims that ANTHROPOS, "human being," comes from ANA and OPSOMAI--"one who looks up." This not only is an irrelevant human characteristic, but it also fails to account for some of the letters. Better would be ANTI, "back and forth," RHETHEIS, "making a sound," and EPOS, "word": "a creature that speaks back." An important Roman work containing - albeit mostly erroneous - etymologies was the multi-volume De Lingua Latina written by Varro.


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 riff 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.

Modern era

Etymology in the modern sense emerges 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, Vossius, Stephen Skinner, Elisha Coles or 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 by the Hungarian János Sajnovics in 1770, 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). The origin of modern historical linguistics is often traced back to Sir William Jones, an English philologist living in Indiamarker, 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.

The study of etymology in Germanic philology was introduced by Rasmus Christian Rask in the early 19th century, and taken to high standards 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, the 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") showed how these ideas had changed over time, according to which value-system appropriated them. The strategy has gained popularity in the 20th century, with philosophers such as Jacques Derrida using etymologies to indicate former meanings of words with view to decentering the "violent hierarchies" of Western metaphysics.


  • Skeat, Walter W. (2000), The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, repr ed., Diane. (ISBN 0-7881-9161-6)
  • Skeat, Walter W. (1963) An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, (ISBN 0-19-863104-9)
  • Snoj, Marko (2005). Etymology. In: Strazny, Philipp (ed.). Encyclopedia of Linguistics. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, vol. 1: A—L, pages 304—306.
  • C. T. Onions, G. W. S. Friedrichsen, R. W. Burchfield, (1966, reprinted 1992, 1994), Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, (ISBN 0-19-861112-9)
  • Liberman, Anatoly (2005) "Word Origins...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone", (ISBN 0-19-516147-5)

See also


External links

English language

Reference sources
Large-scale online



Radio and podcast

Other online etymological dictionaries

Indo-European languages

Afroasiatic languages

  • [80665] — Afroasiatic Etymology by S. A. Starostin et al.
  • [80666] — Arabic Etymology by Andras Rajki
  • [80667] — Hebrew Etymology by Isaac Fried

Altaic languages

  • [80668] — Altaic Etymology by S. A. Starostin et al.
  • [80669] — Gagauz Etymology by Andras Rajki
  • [80670] — Chuvash Etymology by M. R. Fedotov
  • [80671] — Mongolian Etymology by Andras Rajki

Austronesian languages

  • [80672] — Indonesian Etymology by S. M. Zain
  • [80673] — Maori Etymology by E. Tregear
  • [80674] — Waray Etymology by Andras Rajki

Bantu languages

  • [80675] — Bantu Etymology
  • [80676] — Swahili Etymology by Andras Rajki

Creole languages and conlangs

  • [80677] — Tok Pisin Etymology by F. Mihalic
  • [80678] — Morisyen Etymology by Andras Rajki
  • [80679] — Esperanto Etymology by Andras Rajki

Uralic languages

  • [80680] — Uralic Etymology by S. A. Starostin et al.
  • [80681] — Finnish Etymology by Andras Rajki
  • [80682] — Lapp Etymology

Other languages and language families

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