Etymology of words or their "true meanings"
People's interest in the history of words and their meanings dates at least from the time of the Stoics of Ancient Greece.
For them, to trace the history of a word back to its origin was the best guide to its "true meaning" or etymon.
This position still is prominent in arguments about words today, but the term etymology, derived from the Stoics' search for "the true and original meaning", is now understood simply as the search for the historical explanations of how a word came to have its present form and meaning.
The more successful and scholarly the search is, the more one becomes aware not only that the ultimate "origin" of a word can rarely be found but also that a determination to use a word in its oldest known sense would result in total confusion for today's user.
The argument that a word means what it did originally may be justly labeled, for all its attraction, an "etymological fallacy".
Tracing how a word came by its present meaning/meanings is NOT a futile project!
Once a person abandons the search for "ultimate truth" and concentrates on how meanings have evolved, the explanations become fascinating, if not stranger than the imagination one could have predicted.
The first impression someone may have is that words change their meanings in unpredictable ways; but this will be corrected when the person considers the various staging posts along the route the words have traveled. It is here that everyone begins to see a pattern of processes whereby one meaning gives rise to another one.
English obviously comes from many sources
Ultimately, explaining the changes of word meanings require full knowledge not only of relevant languages but of relevant civilizations and their history.
While this is probably an unattainable ideal, it is still considered a rewarding quest as we seek to learn more about the origins of words.
No other language gains more than English from researches into the past because it has borrowed so much of its vocabulary from so many diverse sources.
The words of English constitute an incredible heritage: they represent nothing less than a crystallization and a distillation of the entire collective experience of countless speakers; transmitted in an unbroken chain from person to person, day by day, year by year, generation by generation, in a succession stretching backward through time to the most remote period of human antiquity.
Wherever speakers have traveled, whatever new artifacts or flora or fauna or customs they have encountered, whatever new beliefs or philosophies or sciences they have developed, whatever joys or tragedies they have undertaken; their lexicon has accompanied them, growing steadily, adapting and accommodating itself to their ever-changing needs.
New words have entered English; "new", that is, to the English language, but often incredibly old in others.
Many words have fallen into disuse, grown obsolete, and sometimes disappeared; as well as, developed meanings that frequently diverge in amazing ways from their earlier senses.
Words, of course, serve as building blocks of communication, as tools of thought, and as outlets for emotions; but they represent more than that: they are living representatives of the past, and each bears the imprint of its passage through time.
Every word in its own right is a souvenir of history with a unique story to tell all of us, as demonstrated in these "English and its Historical Development" pages.
References: sources of information.
You may proceed to Part 1 of English History and its Development.
INDEX or Table of Contents, English and its historical development.