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In historical linguistics, etymology is the study of the origins of words. Some words have been derived from other languages, possibly in a changed form (the source words are called etymons). Through old texts and comparisons with other languages, etymologists try to reconstruct the history of words — when they entered a language, from what source, and how their form and meaning changed.

Etymologists also try to reconstruct information about languages that are too old for any direct information (such as writing) to be known. By comparing words in related languages, one can learn about their shared parent language. In this way, word roots have been found which can be traced all the way back to the origin of the Indo-European language family.

The word etymology itself comes from the Greek ἔτυμον (étymon, the true meaning of a word) and λόγος (lógos, science).

Basic ideas in etymology

  • Words may start with a longer, possibly more complicated form which becomes simpler or shorter. For example, lord comes from hlāf weard, meaning "bread guard".
  • In contrast to the point above, short words may be lengthened by the fusion of affixes to a word. For example, elucidation (enlightening) comes from e+lucid+ation.
  • Longer words may also be formed by compounding. An example is bluebird.
  • Slang words may enter the common language. Sometimes, common words become slang.
  • Vulgar words may become euphemisms for other words, and sometimes euphemisms become vulgarisms.
  • Taboo words may be avoided and lost. They are often replaced by euphemisms or circumlocutions.
  • Words may meld together to become portmanteau words, such as smog, a blend of smoke and fog.
  • Words may start off as acronyms, like snafu.
  • The boundaries between words may move. For example, a napron became an apron.
  • Words come from specialist trades (font), different cultures or subcultures, and even works of literature (chortle from Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass). Words may be named after a particular place (toponyms, e.g. china) or after a particular person (eponym, e.g. Achilles' tendon).

English etymology

As a language, English is derived from the Anglo-Saxon, a dialect of West Germanic (as was Old Low German), 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~ich; thou~Du; we~wir; 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. In fact, more than half of the words in English either come from the French language, or have a French cognate. However, the most common root words 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.

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 English of the time. 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, meaning "cow"; veal with veau, meaning "calf"; pork with porc, meaning "pig"; and poultry with poulet, meaning "chicken". In this situation, the foodstuff has the Norman name, and the animal the Anglo-Saxon name, since it was the Norman rulers who ate meat (meat was an expensive commodity and could rarely be afforded by the Anglo-Saxons), and the Anglo-Saxons who farmed the animals.

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 syllabe, modifié, terminaisons and exemple. In many cases, the English form of the word is more conservative (that is, has changed less) than the French form.

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 southwestern United States. Examples include buckaroo from vaquero or "cowboy", alligator from el lagarto or "the lizard", and rodeo. Cuddle, eerie and greed come from Scots; honcho, sushi, and tsunami from Japanese; dim sum, gung ho, kowtow, kumquat, and typhoon from Cantonese Chinese; behemoth from Hebrew; steppe, taiga, sable, hamster and sputnik from Russian; and lagniappe from Quechua. See also loanword.

History of etymology

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 Pindar to Sir Thomas Browne, etymology has been a form of witty wordplay, in which the supposed origins of words were mythologized to satisfy contemporary requirements, much as myths were formed to explain archaic rituals that were no longer comprehensible. 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 Cretans 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, and Isidore of Seville compiled a volume of etymologies, some quite far-fetched, 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." [1].

See also

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