ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

What is Etymology?

Updated on May 16, 2010

Etymology is study of the history of words. The development of a word is traced back as far as possible through ancient texts, and by comparative reconstruction, but often not to its absolute origin. The study is now subsumed under historical (diachronic) linguistics.

The word 'etymology', derived partly from Greek etumos, true, reflects the common misconception that older forms and meanings of words are superior to current ones. Early scholars produced many speculative false etymologies, for example, connecting Latin lucus, a wood, with lucere, to shine, on the superficial evidence that the words sounded alike and that the sun fails to shine in a wood. But since the 19th-century researches of linguistic scholars such as Grimm and the group known as the neogrammarians, etymology has been a more scientific study and words as dissimilar as beef and cow can now be reliably traced to the same reconstructed Indo-European word *g"ous, the former by way of the Latin bos, the latter through the Old English cu. However, there still remain disputed and dubious etymologies of words where evidence is scant. One such is big, which appears in Middle English with only an obscure proper name as a possible Old English antecedent.

Words can change their pronunciation (and spelling) in the way that Old English ham (sounding like modern harm) became modern home. These changes, often following general principles such as Grimm's Law, can be stated in terms of sounds, rather than individual words, and so are usually treated separately. The example just illustrated involves the Great Vowel Shift, which affected numerous English words according to their vowels, stress, and other features. Other examples are Old English ban becoming modern bone, stan becoming stone, and so on. Sweeping grammatical changes can also occur and these, too, are usually studied separately from etymology. For example, Old English nouns such as ham had a dative case, hams, now lost, as well as a genitive, hames, which became home's.

Etymology centrally concerns the many changes which affect only one, or a few, words in the same way at any given time. Examples are Middle English cheris losing its final s in becoming cherry, unlike most other words ending in s; the synthesis undergone by Old English dsegesege (literally, day's eye) in becoming daisy, no longer felt as containing more than one element; and the many gains and losses of words and senses of words. These idiosyncratic changes, though not understood well enough to be predicted, are often explained by such factors as the need for new words arising from new discoveries and concepts. These can be supplied by neologisms (germicide, hoover), loan words (ombudsman ), and by adding new senses to existing words (program in computing). Conversely, a word is lost as the need for its use is lost (for example, phagotum, an extinct musical instrument). Another factor is cultural association, such as that which accounts for Middle English bede, prayer, becoming bead (via the rosary).

Psychological factors also account for change, as seen for example in homonymic clash—the loss of one of two words that have come to sound the same where the meanings might lead to confusion (let, meaning 'hinder' being lost in the face of let, meaning 'allow'). Other psychological factors include analogical levelling, such as that which involved creating a new regular plural of book in place of the irregular Old English one (which should have given modern beech ), and interpreting cheris as a plural, creating a new singular by back-formation (cherry); and also popular, or folk, etymology—where speakers unconsciously re-interpret an obscurity to look more familiar (for example, pentice made into penthouse, bridegome changed to bridegroom); the shortening of redundantly long forms (seen in abbreviations like fridge and acronyms like radar); and the desire to be expressive (seen in the weakened hyperbole of starve which once meant exclusively 'die'). A third cause of change involves factors such as: imitation of prestige groups (whereby English needlessly borrowed air and uncle from Norman French, replacing Old English lyft and earn); nationalism (whereby German made a loan translation, or caique, of the international word telephone, from Greek 'far' and 'sound', to produce Femsprecher, rather than borrowing the foreign word).

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • cluense profile image

      Katie Luense 

      8 years ago from Buffalo, NY

      Awesome Hub! I rated it up a notch!

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)