Etymology, Rooting Around

(If the origins of words are not known, then much of our language will not be as easily understood nor appreciated!)

Etymology or Entomology?

Someone once said that an etymologist is a scholar who knows the difference between etymology and entomology. Etymos is the Greek adjective for "true" and logos is the Greek noun for "word". English combined these two words to form "etymology", which means "the history of words" or the development of those words from their earliest beginnings to their present forms and usages.

A professor of linguistics was scheduled to present a lecture on a television program. The title of his presentation was Folk Etymology; but somewhere along the line the title was garbled, and it appeared on the TV station's printed and circulated program as Folk Entomology.

  • The professor explained that the place of insect-study in linguistics may not be appropriate, but since the word entomology has appeared in the ointment, so to speak, let's look at it for a moment.
  • Its main part in the Greek word entomos, which means "insect" or, literally, "something cut in"—the main part, in turn, of entomos is tom, whose root means "to cut or segment;" indeed, the sect of the word insect, from Latin, also means "cut".

Etymological Knowledge is Not Always a Simple Acquisition

The belief is widespread, even among some well educated people, that the way to find out what a word means is to find out what it previously meant; or preferably, if it were possible to do so, what it originally meant. This method is frequently used to deal with borrowed words, the mistaken idea being that the meaning of the word in current English and the meaning of the non-English word from which the English word is derived must be, or at any rate ought to be, one and the same.

As a matter of fact, such an appeal to etymology to determine present meanings is as unreliable as would be an appeal to using spelling to determine modern pronunciation. Changes of meaning, semantic changes, may, and frequently do, alter the so-called etymological senses, which may have become altogether obsolete. The etymological sense is only the earliest sense we can discover, not necessarily the very earliest or the original.

Current Misuse of Greek and Latin Words

Not in the too distant past, all educated people in the western world learned Latin, and many also learned classical Greek. Consequently, they had less difficulty handling words of Latin and Greek origin. These days, few people learn either Latin or Greek. If you learned neither Latin nor Greek, you need to learn how to pronounce scientific names and you also need to recognize the singular and plural forms of English words of Latin and Greek origin.

Some words; such as, agenda, algae, bacteria, data, criteria, fungi, and larvae are all plural forms; of which the singular forms are agendum, alga, bacterium, datum, criterion, fungus, and larva.

Sadly too many forms are being misused as if they were both singular and plural. One example is the word larva with its plural being larvae. Many non-biologists wrongly use the word larvae as both singular and plural; such as, "a larvae", "two larvae". Then someone with no knowledge of Latin will wonder what the plural form is and will simply add the letter "s" as in most other English words, and then speakers of English begin to use "larvae" as singular and "larvaes" as plural.

Consider what already has happened. The word agendum exists, with plural being agenda; however, there are even some dictionaries that suggest that agenda has a plural form of "agendas" and that it is an acceptable plural or at least that "agendas" is being widely used and therefore imply that it is an acceptable form to use.

Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences. Language and knowledge are indissolubly connected; they are interdependent. Good work in language presupposes and depends on a real knowledge of things.

—Annie Sullivan (1866-1936)
U.S. Teacher of the handicapped

Excerpts about Etymologies from Various Sources

  • Among the European languages, only English stands out as an etymological orphan. The Oxford English Dictionary never neglects the questions of origin, but it was written to present the history rather than the undocumented prehistory of English words. -Anatoly Liberman
  • An etymologist, of necessity, shuttles between words and things. Words may be conventional, but we do not want them to be arbitrary, and for this reason the study of words is inseparable from the study of things. -Anatoly Liberman
  • It is enough to open any page of an English dictionary, to see that, numerically, words of Romance origin predominate in the vocabulary of modern language, even though the most frequent words (come, go, do, make, foot, hand, eye, bread, water) are usually Germanic.
  • Several problems confront a student of the Romance element in English. To make sure that a word has come to English from French, one has to discover the French etymon. This is sometimes impossible, because in our search, we move back and forth between Old French and Anglo-French, or Anglo-Norman, as it is sometimes called, the French dialect spoken by the Normans in England.
  • In the first two centuries after the Conquest, the language of the rulers was almost closed to English words, but later the situation changed, so that a word known to us only from Anglo-French may, dispite that fact, have been a borrowing from Middle English and have had a Germanic rather than a Romance past.-Anatoly Liberman.
  • Many words penetrated Early French from their Germanic neighbors (the Franks) and returned to English.
  • No modern European language has received so many words from so many languages as has English. Whether this openness has always been a blessing is a mattter of opinion. Foreigners groan under the burden of English Vocabulary. Native speakers, who, as time goes on, read less and less of their classical literature, and therefore, understand it worse and worse. -Anatoly Liberman
  • Any introduction to the history of English touches on the Germanic origin of English vocabulary, the Scandinavian invasion, the Norman Conquest, and the role of later borrowings from Latin and Greek sources.
—Based on information from Etymology for Everyone,
Word Origins . . . and how we know them

by Anatoly Liberman (Professor in the Department of German,
Scandinavian, and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, USA);
Oxford University Press, 2005; excerpts from pages 13-14, 153, and 156.

Learning "Word Origins" with "Etymologies.

Unit of etym- words.