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What is Etymology?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Etymology is a branch of linguistics which focuses on word origins and the evolution of languages as they are used. Every word in a language has a complex history, and etymology aims to understand that history so that the word can be better understood. In addition, looking at the etymology of words within a language helps linguists understand the language as a whole, along with other languages in the same language family.

The term “etymology” first entered the English language in 1398, and it is a compound of two Greek words, etymon, referring to the true sense of something, and logos, or “word.” Early students of etymology became intrigued about the words which were widely in use, and where they came from, so they started to look at the roots and history of their language. In some instances, unfortunately, students of words came up with folk etymologies for words, which are entertaining, but untrue. Since folk etymology for some words is very widespread, the true roots of the words are sometimes obfuscated.

New words enter a language in a number of ways. One of the most common is borrowing. English, for example, is a language which is well known for borrowing words from other languages. Indeed, a large portion of the English language includes borrowed words like doppleganger, smorgasboard, pundit, aardvark, and amok. Often, the pronunciation and meaning of a word undergo changes when it is borrowed, and the original users may not recognize it after several decades of adoption.

Another common source of new words is word formation. Word formation involves creating entirely new words, often compounding existing words in the language, or by changing the meaning of an established word. In eras of accelerated scientific and technical development, a plethora of new words and meanings like Internet, router, and robot emerge. New words can also be created through compounding, adding prefixes or suffixes to existing words to change their meaning, as is the case with words such as glorify, educational, rhapsodize, and the popular 2006 word, truthiness. In some cases, a new word forms from sound symbolism, also called onomatopoeia. Common examples of onomatopoeia are words such as meow, honk, buzz, and clank, which illustrate their meaning with the sound that they make.

The study of language is important, because it reveals a great deal about the culture in which the language is spoken. By figuring out whether words were newly formed or borrowed, for example, linguists can determine when various cultures had contact which each other. As the meaning of words undergoes subtle transitions, etymology can also illustrate social and political trends. For many students of etymology, it is also simply interesting.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Magnette — On Jan 04, 2014
@Theborgrote: I disagree. I think the English language is largely taking over the world, particularly over the Internet. While English may continue to absorb words from other languages, its expanded use will slowly choke out many other languages with smaller numbers of speakers.
By Theborgrote — On Jan 04, 2014

One of the themes examined in George Orwell's book "1984" is a form of reverse etymology - subtracting words from language to limit the range of human thought. In the book, the people creating the "newspeak" language actively try to eliminate synonyms and antonyms. Instead of "bad" they say "ungood." A pretty scary concept.

But with the advance of the Internet and social media, people from all over the world can only interact to a greater degree. Thus, words will continue to be shared between various languages and tracing their etymologies will continue to be important and relevant.

By Carpell — On Jan 03, 2014
Language as a communicative tool is fascinating, as is etymology - the study of how words come to be. This article mentions that English borrows lots of words from other languages and gives some good examples. But other languages take words from English as well - for example "avtomobil" and "televizoru" are Russian for "automobile" and "television. "Radio" is the same in both languages.

Equally fascinating, to me at least, is the development of different alphabets for different languages. English uses the Roman alphabet while Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. The sound represented by "R" in English is denoted by "P" in Russian. And the sound "S" in English is a "C" in Russian.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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