Etymology

Where do words come from? Think about it. Did the words you know come from some great Big Bang of language? Or were they each born out of necessity and formed over centuries of use? The answer is yes—both, and other ways, too! Etymology is the study of word origin, and it tells the story of how each word joins a language to express meaning. The etymology of words is essentially the study of the evolution of language. 

Etymology Etymology

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Table of contents

    Etymology Definition

    Each language has a unique history that explains how its word originated. Generally speaking, the background of a word usually explains a lot of information about its intended use and purpose.

    Etymology is the study and investigation of the origin of words in a particular language.

    Some words are passed down from a variety of languages that act like building blocks to form a new language, while others are so elemental to a language that no one knows their true origin. Other words are spawned out of a need to fill a gap in a language when something new comes along.

    The word podcast is a good example of a word created to give a name to something new. A popular form of media was born in the early twenty-first century, where episodic series of conversational audio files were broadcast to anyone with a media player. This became such a prevalent form of entertainment that it was given a name, podcast—pod for the popular media players called iPods, and cast for the latter half of broadcast. This linguistic process is known as a portmanteau, combining the meaning of two or more words—or parts of those words—to create a new word.

    Etymology of Words

    The etymology of a word typically starts with the main word, known as the root, which is where the majority of the meaning comes from. Take, for example, the word beautiful; the root word is beauty.

    Etymology Etymology of words Root words Tree with roots StudySmarterFig. 1 - Think of the root of a word like the root of a tree: tree roots give life and word roots give meaning.

    Once you know the root word, you can decipher the meaning of the additions made to the word. When you add the suffix -ful to the root word beauty, you get a word to describe something "full of beauty." Once you know information like this, it's easier to work your way backward to investigate the word and its etymology further.

    Etymology can also study the evolution of phrases in addition to singular words. Think of the term push the envelope, for example. Why do we say that?

    When the root word and additions are identified, etymology can further investigate its history to determine if its components have roots in other languages.

    English, for example, is a West Germanic language, meaning it’s a branch of language that originated in Western Eurasia. Through its evolution, though, English adopted many Latin words—about 60% of English words have a Latin origin—and has continued the tradition of welcoming words from different languages and dialects.

    Etymology chronicles these changes. There are three basic ways a word can change:

    Modifications

    Modifications happen when the use of the word creates some desired change. Whether it’s to make the word easier to say or any other reason to make it “user-friendly,” modifications happen over time as the word is used repeatedly.

    Memo – shortened from the word memorandum

    A modern English speaker would rarely say, “I read your memorandum.” They would more likely say, “I read your memo,” because this word was modified over time for ease of use.

    Semantic Changes

    Semantic changes are those that alter the actual meaning of a word.

    Mouse – a device used to direct the cursor of a computer

    Where the word mouse used to only mean a small rodent, today, a mouse might also mean a computer mouse. Some words shift in meaning to accommodate changes in social connotation (think: the connotation of calling someone a “maid” instead of “housekeeper”). Words can also shift function to become a new part of speech (think: “buck up” means to boost morale, instead of the literal meaning of the two words individually).

    Fewer and fewer people use desktop computers requiring a mouse (many people use laptops or tablets), so what might happen to the word mouse in the coming decades?

    Borrowing

    Many languages borrow words from one another to express something native to a particular culture.

    Bar mitzvah – a Jewish term for a coming-of-age tradition for young men

    As previously mentioned, English has borrowed many words from other languages to create new words over time.

    Telephone – originally derived from the Greek word-forming element tel- which essentially means “far” and the Greek word pheme, which means “speech, speaking, or utterance”

    Most often, the language adopting the word will alter the sound slightly to help the word sound more natural in its new context. This accounts for words that might look and sound similar, and mean the same thing across several languages.

    English – is

    German – ist

    Latin – Est

    Indo-European – Esti

    Etymology in Linguistics

    Many Linguists agree that linguistic research begins and ends with etymology. While etymology doesn’t specifically seek to uncover how particular words evolve, it is a necessary tool to answer this question.

    Simply put: etymology illuminates the changes in language, while linguistics seeks to make connections and understand the changes over time.

    Etymology is closely related to derivational morphology.

    Morphology is the study of the smallest segments of language that carry meaning.

    Derivational morphology is the study of these sub-word components that are capable of creating a new word or changing the grammatical category of the root word.

    Masterfully = master (root) + ful (suffix) + ly (suffix)

    With the addition of the derivational morpheme -ful, it becomes masterful, an adjective that describes someone or something as proficient. Add another derivational morpheme, -ly, and you get the adverb masterfully.

    Now that you've broken the word down into its singular parts, you might begin an investigation of the etymology of the root word. The root word master is a verb meaning to have command over something, and it originates with the Latin term magister.

    The suffixes -ful and -ly have their own etymology. The suffix -ful comes from the Old English adjective full, meaning "full of" or "characterized by fullness." The suffix -ly is actually a contraction of the word like meaning "in such a manner," which originated in English as the adjectival suffix -lice in early Middle English.

    Etymology Examples

    The specific etymological details are different for every word used in a language. Here are some examples.

    Cappuccino

    Root: Capuchin. Italian

    Etymology Etymology examples Cappuccino StudySmarterFig. 2 - The light brown color of a cappuccino is the inspiration for its name.

    Italian Capuchin friars were a group founded in the 16th century and known for their lifestyle of simplicity and poverty. Their attire was also of note, as it was a simple brown robe with a long hood called a cappuccio. When the Italian drink came along, it was dubbed ‘cappuccino’ because of its color and how it resembled the robe of the Capuchin monks.

    Salary

    Root: Salrarium. Latin for “salt money"

    A valuable commodity for health and living, salt was used in ancient times as payment for goods and services.

    This is an example of an ancient concept—paying laborers for their work—living through the centuries with little change to the word itself. The meaning has only changed in the sense that in the modern day, you’re unlikely to find salt as the currency.

    Example

    Root: Ex- (Latin for “out”) and emere (Latin for “take”) come together to form eximere, which in time became exemplum.

    The late middle English word example was born to communicate the concept of taking something out of a larger group to use it as an instance against which to measure other things.

    Etymology - Key takeaways

    • Etymology is the study and investigation of the origin of words in a particular language.
    • The etymology of a word begins with identifying the root word or the part of the word that carries the majority of its meaning.
    • Etymology illuminates the changes in language, while linguistics seeks to make connections and understand the changes over time.
    • In linguistics, etymology is closely related to derivational morphology.
    • The three basic ways a word can change over time are:
      • Borrowing
      • Modification
      • Semantic change
    Frequently Asked Questions about Etymology

    What is another word for etymology?

    Another word for etymology is derivation. Etymology is also closely related to semantic change. 

    Is etymology part of linguistics?

    Yes, etymology falls under historical linguistics and draws upon semantics, morphology, semiotics, and phonetics. 

    What is etymology and example?

    Etymology is the study and investigation of the origin of words in a particular language. An example of etymology is the word trivial which stems from the Latin word trivium.

    Why is it important to know the etymology of words?

    Etymology teaches us the origin of words, which is helpful in understanding how language takes shape.

    How do you use etymology in a sentence?

    Etymology is used to discuss the study of word origins: “The etymology of the word nightmare is strange and convoluted.”

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: every word spoken in the word today has an origin.

    The word podcast is an example of what linguistic concept?

    The _________ of a word is where the majority of meaning comes from.

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