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Getting Smarter through Language

Etymology and Surprising Origin of Words in English


This short lesson explains what etymology is and how etymologists trace words back to their origins. It also explores the influence of the reconstructed, theoretical language called Proto-Indo-European (PIE) in the formation of vocabulary words in many modern languages.


This lesson covers the following:

  • What etymology is.
  • Methodologies: How etymologists trace the origins of words.
  • The Proto-Indo-European (PIE)
  • Examples of how PIE roots and words in modern English and other languages.
  • How etymology can help you acquire and understand vocabulary words.

What is Etymology?

In a nutshell, etymology is the study of the origin of words and phrases. The Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines etymology as

the history of a linguistic form (such as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language. (source)

Although this is a good definition (as far as dictionary definitions go), there is more to etymology than simply unearthing a word’s earliest recorded occurence in the language because often no written records exist of an and stage (or stages) of a language. Yet, etymologists compare sound correspondences in words across languages that they suspect are related. They can then model a possible history of the evolution of the word as it morphed into other forms that were passed down through history.

Such process often relies on hypotheses that get tested over time. Naturally, as etymologists find further research evidence, sometimes the origin or a particular word becomes widely accepted while, other times, it is is revised as new hypotheses must be proposed. Etymology is filled with highly debated

Etymological controversies are not unique to hard-to-trace ancient words. The etymology of modern words and expressions are often debated.

Such etymological controversies exist even among laypeople. For example, take the term “redneck,” a prejudiced term meaning “an uneducated White farm laborer, especially from the South of the United States.” (source) Most people have heard that the term comes from farmers who wear a straw hat and whose necks would turn red from leaving their necks exposed to the sun.Digging deeper, etymologists have found other origins which, in fact, seem more plausible. (See “redneck” on Etymonline for more information.)

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