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Introduction to Etymology: Word Histories

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The etymology of a word refers to its origin and historical development: that is, its earliest known use, its transmission from one language to another, and its changes in form and meaning. Etymology is also the term for the branch of linguistics that studies word histories.

What's the Difference Between a Definition and an Etymology?

A definition tells us what a word means and how it's used in our own time. An etymology tells us where a word came from (often, but not always, from another language) and what it used to mean.

For example, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the definition of the word disaster is "an occurrence causing widespread destruction and distress; a catastrophe" or "a grave misfortune." But the etymology of the word disaster takes us back to a time when people commonly blamed great misfortunes on the influence of the stars.

Disaster first appeared in English in the late 16th century, just in time for Shakespeare to use the word in the play King Lear. It arrived by way of the Old Italian word disastro, which meant "unfavorable to one's stars."

This older, astrological sense of disaster becomes easier to understand when we study its Latin root word, astrum, which also appears in our modern "star" word astronomy. With the negative Latin prefix dis- ("apart") added to astrum ("star"), the word (in Latin, Old Italian, and Middle French) conveyed the idea that a catastrophe could be traced to the "evil influence of a star or planet" (a definition that the dictionary tells us is now "obsolete").

Is the Etymology of a Word Its True Definition?

Not at all, though people sometimes try to make this argument. The word etymology is derived from the Greek word etymon, which means "the true sense of a word." But in fact the original meaning of a word is often different from its contemporary definition.

The meanings of many words have changed over time, and older senses of a word may grow uncommon or disappear entirely from everyday use. Disaster, for instance, no longer means the "evil influence of a star or planet," just as consider no longer means "to observe the stars."

Let's look at another example. Our English word salary is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as "fixed compensation for services, paid to a person on a regular basis." Its etymology can be traced back 2,000 years to sal, the Latin word for salt. So what's the connection between salt and salary?

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder tells us that "in Rome, a soldier was paid in salt," which back then was widely used as a food preservative. Eventually, this salarium came to signify a stipend paid in any form, usually money. Even today the expression "worth your salt" indicates that you're working hard and earning your salary. However, this doesn't mean that salt is the true definition of salary.

Where Do Words Come From?

New words have entered (and continue to enter) the English language in many different ways. Here are some of the most common ways.
  • Borrowing
    The majority of the words used in modern English have been borrowed from other languages. Although most of our vocabulary comes from Latin and Greek (often by way of other European languages), English has borrowed words from more than 300 different languages around the world. Here are just a few examples:
    • futon (from the Japanese word for "bedclothes, bedding")
    • gorilla (Greek Gorillai, a tribe of hairy women, perhaps of African origin)
    • hamster (Middle High German hamastra)
    • kangaroo (Aboriginal language of Guugu Yimidhirr, gangurru , referring to a species of kangaroo)
    • kink (Dutch, "twist in a rope")
    • moccasin (Native American Indian, Virginia Algonquian, akin to Powhatan mäkäsn and Ojibwa makisin)
    • molasses (Portuguese melaços, from Late Latin mellceum, from Latin mel, "honey")
    • muscle (Latin musculus, "mouse")
    • slogan (alteration of Scots slogorne, "battle cry")
    • smorgasbord (Swedish, literally "bread and butter table")
    • whiskey (Old Irish uisce, "water," and bethad, "of life")


  • Clipping or Shortening
    Some new words are simply shortened forms of existing words, for instance indie from independent; exam from examination; flu from influenza, and fax from facsimile.


  • Compounding
    A new word may also be created by combining two or more existing words: fire engine, for example, and babysitter.


  • Blends
    A blend (also called a portmanteau word) is a word formed by merging the sounds and meanings of two or more other words. Examples include moped, from mo(tor) + ped(al), and brunch, from br(eakfast) + (l)unch.


  • Conversion or Functional Shift
    New words are often formed by changing an existing word from one part of speech to another. For example, innovations in technology have encouraged the transformation of the nouns network, Google, microwave, and fax into verbs.


  • Transfer of Proper Nouns
    Sometimes the names of people, places, and things become generalized vocabulary words. For instance, the noun maverick was derived from the name of an American cattleman, Samuel Augustus Maverick. The saxophone was named after Sax, the surname of a 19th-century Belgian family that made musical instruments.


  • Neologisms or Creative Coinages
    Now and then, new products or processes inspire the creation of entirely new words. Such neologisms are usually short lived, never even making it into a dictionary. Nevertheless, some have endured, for example quark (coined by novelist James Joyce), galumph (Lewis Carroll), aspirin (originally a trademark), grok (Robert A. Heinlein).


  • Imitation of Sounds
    Words are also created by onomatopoeia, naming things by imitating the sounds that are associated with them: boo, bow-wow, tinkle, click.

Why Should We Care About Word Histories?

If a word's etymology is not the same as its definition, why should we care at all about word histories? Well, for one thing, understanding how words have developed can teach us a great deal about our cultural history. In addition, studying the histories of familiar words can help us deduce the meanings of unfamiliar words, thereby enriching our vocabularies. Finally, word stories are often both entertaining and thought provoking. As any youngster can tell you, words are fun.

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