Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Etymology (

phonemes.[2][3] It is a subfield of historical linguistics, philology, and semiotics, and draws upon comparative semantics, morphology, pragmatics, and phonetics
in order to construct a comprehensive and chronological catalogue of all meanings that a morpheme, phoneme, word, or sign has carried across time.

For languages with a long

linguists can make inferences about their shared parent language and its vocabulary. In this way, word roots in many European languages, for example, can be traced back to the origin of the Indo-European language family

Even though etymological research originated from the philological tradition, much current etymological research is done on language families where little or no early documentation is available, such as Uralic and Austronesian.


The word etymology is derived from the Ancient Greek word ἐτυμολογία (ἐτυμολογία), itself from ἔτυμον (ἔτυμον), meaning 'true sense or sense of a truth', and the suffix -logia, denoting 'the study or logic of'.[4][5]

The term etymon refers to the predicate (i.e. stem

place names such as Winchester, Gloucester, Tadcaster share in different modern forms a suffixed
etymon that was once meaningful, Latin castrum 'fort'.

Reflex is the name given to a descendant word in a daughter language, descended from an earlier language. For example, Modern English heat is the reflex of the Old English hǣtu. Rarely, this word is used in reverse, and the 'reflex' is actually the root word rather than the descendant word. However, this usage is usually filled by the term etymon instead. A reflex will sometimes be described simply as a descendant, derivative or derived from an etymon (but see below).

Cognates or lexical cognates are sets of words that have been inherited in direct descent from an etymological ancestor in a common parent language.[8]
Doublets or etymological twins or twinlings (or possibly triplets, and so forth) are specifically cognates within the same language. Although they have the same etymological root, they tend to have different phonological forms, and to have entered the language through different routes.

A root is the source of related words within a single language (no language barrier is crossed). Similar to the distinction between etymon and root, a nuanced distinction can sometimes be made between a descendant and a derivative.


is one of the words which have their source in a root word, and were at some time created from the root word using morphological constructs such as suffixes, prefixes, and slight changes to the vowels or to the consonants of the root word. For example unhappy, happily, and unhappily are all derivatives of the root word happy.

The terms root and derivative are used in the analysis of morphological derivation within a language in studies that are not concerned with historical linguistics and that do not cross the language barrier.

Diagram showing relationships between etymologically related words


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

derivation and compounding; and onomatopoeia and sound symbolism
(i.e., the creation of imitative words such as "click" or "grunt").

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 readily obvious that the English word set is related to the word sit (the former is originally a causative formation of the latter). It is even less obvious that bless is related to blood (the former was originally a derivative with the meaning "to mark with blood").

Semantic change may also occur. For example, the English word bead originally meant "prayer". It acquired its modern meaning through the practice of counting the recitation of prayers by using beads.


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, which began no earlier than the 18th century. From

Jacobus de Varagine, begins each vita of a saint with a fanciful excursus in the form of an etymology.[9]

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

  • Yaska
    (c. 6th–5th centuries BCE)
  • Pāṇini (c. 520–460 BCE)
  • Kātyāyana
    (6th-4th centuries BCE)
  • Patañjali (2nd century BCE)

These linguists were not the earliest Sanskrit grammarians, however. They followed a line of ancient grammarians of Sanskrit who lived several centuries earlier like


The analyses of

Sanskrit grammar done by the previously mentioned linguists involved extensive studies on the etymology (called Nirukta or Vyutpatti in Sanskrit) of Sanskrit words, because the ancient Indians 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 address etymology was the

, while explicitly dismissing the obvious, and actual "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 overall. Others make the word refer to exceptions of impossible cases; the priests were to perform all the duties possible; if anything lays beyond their power, the exception was not to be cavilled. 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.


Legenda Aurea
begins with an etymological discourse 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.[10]

Modern era

Etymology in the modern sense emerged in the late 18th-century European academia, within the context of the wider "

Samuel Gyarmathi).[11]

The origin of modern

The study of etymology 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") show how these ideas had changed over time—according to which value-system appropriated them. This strategy gained popularity in the 20th century, and philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida, have used etymologies to indicate former meanings of words to de-center the "violent hierarchies" of Western philosophy

Notable etymologists

  • Ernest Klein (1899–1983), Hungarian-born Romanian-Canadian linguist, etymologist
  • Marko Snoj (born 1959), Indo-Europeanist, Slavist, Albanologist, lexicographer, and etymologist
  • Anatoly Liberman (born 1937), linguist, medievalist, etymologist, poet, translator of poetry and literary critic
  • Michael Quinion (born c. 1943)

See also



  • Alfred Bammesberger. English Etymology. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1984.
  • Philip Durkin. "Etymology", in Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edn. Ed. Keith Brown. Vol. 4. Oxford: Elsevier, 2006, pp. 260–7.
  • Philip Durkin. The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • William B. Lockwood. An Informal Introduction to English Etymology. Montreux, London: Minerva Press, 1995.
  • Yakov Malkiel. Etymology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Alan S. C. Ross. Etymology, with a special reference to English. Fair Lawn, N.J.: Essential Books; London: Deutsch, 1958.
  • Michael Samuels. Linguistic Evolution: With Special Reference to English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.
  • Bo Svensén. "Etymology", chap. 19 of A Handbook of Lexicography: The Theory and Practice of Dictionary-Making. Cambridge/NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Walther von Wartburg. Problems and Methods in Linguistics, rev. edn. with the collaboration of Stephen Ullmann. Trans. Joyce M. H. Reid. Oxford: Blackwell, 1969.

External links