The etymology of a word is not its definition; rather, it refers to the study of a word’s origin and how its usage has changed and developed. For instance, the word etymology is derived from a Greek word: etymon, which means “the true sense” and the suffix -ology, which indicates the study of a particular branch of knowledge.
While a word’s usage and meaning can dramatically change over time, understanding where our language comes from is useful and important.
Knowing root words and understanding the meanings of prefixes and suffixes will increase your vocabulary by helping you to identify words that are unfamiliar to you.
A large majority of the words in our language have Greco-Roman roots. Let’s look at the word encephalitis. The prefix en- means “in,” the word cephalo- is a Latin root meaning “brain, head, skull,” and the suffix -itis shows that something is a disease, usually one characterized by inflammation. When we put those together, we’ve got: in + brain + disease (with swelling), so encephalitis is a disease that causes brain swelling.
While that particular word may or may not be familiar to you, learning about words that you already know will help you begin to understand words that you don’t.
Learning the histories of words can teach us about our own history.
Let’s look at the word salary. We all know what that is, right? It is compensation for services: what you get paid when you work. However, the root of salary is the word sal, which is Latin for the word salt. The origin of salary comes from the word salarium, which is what Roman soldiers were paid for their service. What was a salarium? It was a measure of salt. Now we can better understand where the phrase “worth your salt” came from!
Not all words can be traced to Greco-Roman origins of course. The etymology of words is quite diverse, with words always entering our language, along with others falling out of usage and still others changing meaning as their usage shifts. New words enter the English language in many ways.
Borrowing from other languages. Think rodeo, armadillo, coyote, potato (Spanish); infantry, marmalade, cabbage, nicotine (French); jungle, cheetah (Hindi); and noodle, stein, delicatessen (German).
Compounding words. Think sleepwalk, babysitter, and sidewalk.
Blending words. A blended word is also called a portmanteau. Some of these words include brunch (breakfast + lunch), cheeseburger (cheese + hamburger), smog (smoke + fog), bit (binary + digit), and infomercial (information + commercial).
Clipping words. These words are made by shortening other words, like flu (influenza), exam (examination), pop (popular music), and gas (gasoline).
Converting words to a new part of speech. For instance, while the microwave was invented as a machine we use to cook food (a noun), the term microwave has also shifted into usage as a verb: “Go microwave this potato for me.” Other examples of conversion include the words text: written material(n) and writing a message on a phone(v); Google: a website used to search(n) and used as a term for searching on the internet(v); and bridge: a structure built to cross over something(n) and the act of getting over something(v).
Neologisms. A neologism is a new word (neo-: new, logos: word) often coined by an author, celebrity, or through common use by people in a society. These words usually don’t last too long, fading in and out of fashion, but some of them stick around long enough to be considered actual words and eventually are included in the dictionary. Examples of neologisms include:
Onomatopoeia: words that imitate sounds. Think woof, ribbit, clank, tick-tock, and ah-choo!
Questions on the etymology of a specific word? Try this website.