I. What is Etymology?
Etymology is not a rhetorical or literary device. “Etymology is the investigation of word histories.” Every word in every language has a unique origin and history; words can be born in many ways, and often their histories are quite adventurous and informative. Etymology investigates and documents the lives (mainly the origins) of words.
The etymology of a word may include many things. A word’s birthday is usually given as the date of the first known usage of the word in print. If a word, like “selfie” was created within historical times, it’s origin is described. Most words developed over hundreds of years out of previous words, going back into the ancient past, so an etymology tries to trace that development back as far as it can, usually ending with the oldest dead language that we actually have records of. Most words had slightly or very different meanings in the ancient languages they came from, which is documented as well.
II. Examples of Etymology
Etymologies can be simple or complex. Much like the lives of people, it depends upon how much a word has traveled and what adventures it has had. Here are examples of each:
The etymology of the word ‘etymology’ is complex, as follows:
- ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,”
- from Old French etimologie, ethimologie (14c., Modern French étymologie)
- from Greek etymologia “analysis of a word to find its true origin,” properly “study of the true sense (of a word)”
The etymology of “show-and-tell” is much more simple:
show-and-tell (n.) elementary school teaching tool, 1948, American English.
III. Types of Etymology
Words are born and develop in many ways.
Many words begin with ‘roots’; a root’ is the central piece of most words, the part of the word that carries most of the meaning.
The root of ‘English’ is ‘Engl’ which came from the ancient Germanic tribe, the Angles, who spoke a language that later became English. The -ish is just a suffix, that means “language of” in this case.
There are 1,000’s of word-roots in English (or any language). About half of English word-roots come from ancient Germanic languages, because those languages evolved into English, however the other half of English word-roots come from ancient Latin and French because England was conquered by the Norman French 1,000 years ago and English speakers had to learn most of their vocabulary, which became part of English. Contrary to what a lot of people think, though, English is not descended from Latin. It’s just that most of our more educated-sounding words were borrowed from Norman French, Latin, or Greek, because they were high-status languages.
As they grow, words can change physically and they can change in meaning. They can also give birth to new words or be adopted from far places and foreign languages. In an etymology, you will find the origins of a word and see when, where and why these changes took place.
Words develop through many processes. Here are four of the most general processes:
Once people begin to use a word, they may change it, perhaps to make it easier to say, or to make it sound more different from other words, or other reasons. They may also form new words by modifying old words. ‘Selfie’ is a good example.
b. Semantic Changes
The meanings of words can change over time.
- Technology gives us many new words through metaphor such as keyboard, mouse, and desktop.
- Euphemisms: what is socially acceptable changes and then, words must, too.
- Housecleaner instead of maid.
- Server instead of waiter or waitress
- Functional shift: how words get new parts of speech
- A soldier > to soldier on
- A load > to upload
- To drive > a drive
- Generalization: extending the particular to the general
- Fanatic (religious zealot) to sports fanatic
- Semantic shift: word meanings slide in meaning, as in . . .
- Mood comes from Old English mod, which meant mind or spirit
- Dream in Old English meant a festive atmosphere
As words are used, subtle differences become permanent changes and even new words, themselves:
- Baby talk
- Jammies, bye-bye, tummy
- Blends or ‘portmanteau’ words
- Spanglish, labradoodle
- Coinages: purposely invented words
- Combining forms
- Mini, clipped from miniature and added to everything: minicomputer, minivan
- Do and Undo
- Eponyms: words named after people
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Nonsense words
- Onomatopoeia: words that sound like their meaning
- Slam, crack, bump
- Phrasal verbs: getting by, down, in, off, on, over, and out
- Tune in, clean up, buzz off
- Prefixing and suffixing
- Pre-heat, legal-ize, re-educate-ion
- Reduplication: “the doubling of a syllable or word element to strengthen or emphasize meaning”
Words are frequently adopted from foreign languages, usually with some changes in their sound:
- Many borrowed words are names of things or foods that have been brought into our culture from another: bar mitzvah, feng shui, yoga, taco, sushi.
- There are also many words which you would not realize come from foreign cultures, such as slogan (Gaelic), coyote (Nahuatl), and avatar (Sanskrit)
IV. The Importance of Using Etymology
Etymology is important because by knowing it you can become a better wordsmith. If you understand where your words came from, you understand them better and may be able to sue them more effectively, precisely and beautifully. Knowing etymology will also often help you know the meanings of words you have never seen before. If you look at two people who are related, you can see their similar features and their family tree becomes obvious. In the same way, if you are familiar with word roots and know the etymologies of some words, you can infer the meanings of other words. In this way, your vocabulary can begin to grow on its own.
V. Examples of Etymology in Literature
This section might be more accurately entitled, “etymologists in literature.” The great literary writers created much of our language.
No one has had quite the same influence on the English language as the playwright and poet William Shakespeare. His works are extensive examples of etymology at work. If you do a quick internet search, you will find pages and pages of websites devoted to words he created or adapted to more interesting purposes. It is said that he invented over 4,000 words! He could only do this by understanding the words he was borrowing from. By manipulating old words to new purposes and situations, he was able to creatively entertain his audiences in continually new ways. Here are just a few of the words he is credited with inventing:
J.R.R. Tolkien was another of our language’s great etymologists. He is best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, but he was also a professor of linguistics and he used his knowledge of linguistics in a very different way from Shakespeare—to create realistic fictional languages, names, poetry, and cultures; much of them were closely based on Old English and Old Norse. He also worked on the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Those are only a few examples. If you look at the works of any great author, you will find that they are masters of their language.
VI. Examples of Etymology in Popular Culture
Journalism is a huge part of our popular culture, and the best journalists are excellent etymologists. They must understand both culture and language to do their jobs effectively. They must be able to communicate with people in all areas of society and make themselves understood.
The technological field is one of the greatest fields for etymological development. New words are being invented every day to keep up with changing technology and its uses. Simply think of your computer and you will think of many new words and new ways words are being used: microchip, data processor, iPod, metadata, bandwidth, defrag, interface.
Acronyms are one way that words are invented, which is incredibly popular in current culture. It seems that just about everything has to be shortened to fit into a text message or a two-second sound-bite: LOL, ROFL, OMG. In addition, every institution has its own acronym: UCLA, DOD, FDA. This trend is important to etymology because things that start out as acronyms often become normal words. The words scuba, laser, radar, awol and zip (zip code) are all acronyms that have been accepted as words. Here we can see etymology hard at work.
VII. Related Terms
There are a myriad of terms related to etymology. Go back to section III of this article and you will find an extensive list of them. But, in order to be thorough, here are a few more:
- Linguistics – “the scientific study of language”
- Lexicostatistics – “the statistical study of the vocabulary of a language, with special attention to the historical links with other languages”
- Derivation – “the process whereby new words are formed from existing words or bases by affixation; “’singer’ from ‘sing’ or ‘undo’ from ‘do’ are examples of derivations”
- Folk etymology – “change in the form of a words or phrase resulting from a mistaken assumption about its composition or meaning.” For example, cockroach did not come from cock+roach, but rather from the Spanish cucaracha.