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What Does Etymology Mean?

Etymology is the study of the origin of words. At its most basic level, etymology is the study of a word’s history. Another way to understand the meaning of etymology is to think of it as the study of a word’s family history. Linguists, scholars who study language, perform research to find the early ancestors of the words used today. Often, these histories go back hundreds, if not thousands of years to Greek and Latin words. So, in a way, etymologists are time travelers. Understanding the history of a word can help clarify its use by an author or orator for the reader or listener. Etymology can also help people use words accurately as they learn new vocabulary. Even common words can have interesting origins that provide interesting insights into history. Here are a few examples of how etymology can be very useful.

Etymology is the study of the history of words.

Dictionary page

The word ”clue,” which means a ”a fact or idea that serves as a guide or aid in a task or problem,” comes from the Middle English word clew which means a ball of yarn or thread. Etymologists have discovered the oldest recorded use of clew dates to 1393, but it’s the origin of the word ”clue” that is connected to the Greek mythological story of Theseus famously using a ball of string (clew) to find his way out of the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur.

Sometimes, words can change their connotations (connotation is the implied meaning of a word versus denotation which is the literal meaning). The word ”nice” used to be an insult. Nice came into the English language through the French word (spelled the same) that has its origin in the Latin word nescius meaning ignorant. Therefore, calling someone nice in 14th century English would have possibly hurt someone’s feelings. It’s not until the author Jane Austen used the word in 1799 that etymologists identify the changing connotation of nice to how it is used today to mean agreeable or pleasant. These two examples demonstrate how knowing the etymology of a word can open up worlds of information and provide a better understanding of whatever text it appears in.

Etymology of Etymology

Just like all words, the etymology of etymology has an origin story. The word’s origin in the English language begins in Latin and Greek and then moves through French before appearing in a text in the late 14th century by a scholar named Bartholomaeus Anglicus. Like many words in the English language, etymology can be broken down into root words from either Latin or Greek. In this instance, the word etymology is composed of two root words, one from Latin and one from Greek. The Latin root etymon means ”word,” and the Greek root ology means ”the study of.” Placed together, the two roots combine to mean the study of words.

Etymology Examples

Etymology as an academic discipline is not limited to the English language. The study of language around the world begins with the understanding that languages evolved over millennia as humans tried to communicate with one another. Throughout this time, languages began to develop into different groups that had commonalities. These groups are known as language families.

Indo-European Family

This is the language family of which English is a part. Specifically, English is part of the Germanic sub-family along with German, French, and Dutch. Other sub-family groups include Baltic-Slavic, Roman, Celtic, Albanian, Greek, Armenian, and Indo-Iranian.


In terms of the number of people speaking a particular language, the Sino-Tibetan family is the second largest in the world. Some of the major languages in this family include Mandarin, Kamarupan, Qiangic languages, Hamalayish, and Karenic languages.


Primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, this language family is spoken by 85% of the Africans. Some of the major languages in this family include Benue-Congo languages, Swahili, Bantu languages, Lingala, Kikongo-Kituba, Gur languages, Atlantic languages, and Adamawa-Ubangi languages.


The majority of these languages, of which there are approximately 1,200, are spoken throughout the Indonesian archipelago and the neighboring areas. Some of the major languages in this family include Cebuano, Tagalog, and Ilocano.


The Afro-Asiatic family has its origins in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This language family also possesses some of the earliest forms of writing. Some of the major languages included in this family are Arabic, Oromo, Sidamo, and Hausa.

Study of Word Origins Importance

Languages have been built as part of the long history of human development. Etymologists have grouped languages into families and have identified proto languages from which these large language families come.

Each word in a language is like a single brick in the larger structure of how a language develops. Knowing the origin of words brings history to life and provides a richer understanding of how to accurately use words. Furthermore, the study of word origins helps to understand how writers and thinkers have used words. On a practical level, knowing the history of a word can help with spelling. For example, one of the most famous etymological debates centers around the correct plural form of the word octopus. The acceptable plural forms of the word have varied as etymologists have debated whether octopus has its roots in Greek or Latin.

Etymology Function in Language and Literature

As a reader of older texts, it is particularly helpful to be familiar with the function of etymology in language and literature. Knowing that the connotations and definitions of words change over time can help alleviate confusion when tackling an older text.

Etymology can deepen your understanding of older text.

Old books

  • ”Miss Hawkins, it might be fairly supposed from her easy conceit, had been the best of her own set.” (Jane Austen, Emma)

The word ”conceit” is popularly understood today to mean an excessive pride in oneself, but in years past, the word was also understood to mean ”an emotional state or disposition.” This latter definition is what Jane Austen means, and therefore, she is describing a character who is very popular among her circle of friends because she is easy going, not someone who has an overinflated opinion of themself.

  • ”A turbulent welter of cloud covered the city.” (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)

Knowing the etymology of a word can also reveal how languages are related to each other and how languages often borrow words. For example, the word welter means to roll or twist, and it comes into English from Frisian, which is another language within the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

  • ”I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)

Even seemingly uninteresting words can come to life by understanding their etymology and refining the definition of a word. For example, the word bestow is a combination of the prefix be meaning all around and stow which means to ”place”. Therefore, to bestow is to give or place everywhere instead of doing so in a singular location or to a particular person. Knowing the two components of the word provides insight as to why Shelly chose this dynamic word over more common choices.

Lesson Summary

The study of word origins shows how language is a part of human history. Tracing words through time provides a better understanding of the events that humans have experienced over the centuries. Being aware of the etymology of words while reading literature allows the reader to better understand the connotations and definitions of words, thereby clarifying the meaning of a text as a whole and the intentions of an author. Each word brings with it a wealth of history and meaning, and taking even a short amount time to explore the origin of a word enriches a person’s understanding of the world around them.

  • Etymology is the study of the origin of words.
  • The etymology of etymology has its origin in both Latin and Greek. The root word etymon and the root word ology come together to create etymology, which means the study of words.
  • Etymologists study the history of all the world’s languages. They have created a system of language families that contain languages that share the same origins.
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