The etymology of a word refers to its origin and its development in history, that is, to the first use of which we are aware, to the passage from one language to another and to changes in form and meaning. Etymology is also the term used in linguistics to study the history of a word.
What is the difference between a definition and an etymology?
A definition explains the meaning of a word and its use in our time.
An etymology explains where a word comes from (often, but not always, it comes from another language) and what its meaning was.
For example, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the definition of the word ‘disaster’ is “an event that causes widespread destruction and distress, a catastrophe or a serious misfortune”. But the etymology of the word ‘disaster’ takes us back in time, when people commonly believed that the stars were responsible for great misfortunes.
The word ‘disaster’ first appeared in English in the late 16th century, just in time for Shakespeare to use it in the tragedy of King Lear. It came to us through the ancient Italian word ‘disaster’, which meant “unfavorable to one’s stars”.
This feeling of calamity is easier to understand if we analyze the Latin root of the word ‘astrum’, which also appears in our modern astronomy as a ‘star’. With the Latin prefix negative dis- (far) added to astrum (star), the word (in Latin, ancient Italian and medieval French) expressed the idea that a catastrophe could happen under the “malign influence of a star or a planet ”(a definition that today the dictionary says is obsolete).
Is the etymology of a word its real definition?
Not at all, although sometimes people try to carry this theory forward. The word ‘etymology’ comes from the Greek word ‘etymon’ which means “the true sense of the word” . But in reality, the original meaning of a word often differs from its contemporary definition.
The meanings of many words have changed over time and the old ones can become unusual or completely disappear from everyday use. The word ‘disaster’, for example, no longer means “malign influence of a star or planet”, just as “considering” no longer means “star gazing”.
Let’s take another example. Our English word ‘wages’ is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as the “fixed compensation paid and paid regularly to a person for services”. Its etymology can be traced back 2,000 years ago to ‘sal’, the Latin word meaning “salt”. So what is the connection between salt and wages?
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder tells us that “in Rome, a soldier was paid in salt” which, at the time, was widely used as a food preservative. Eventually, the word ‘salarium’ ended up meaning a salary paid in any form, usually in cash. Even today the expression “worth your salt” (literally “that deserves the salt”) indicates that you are working hard to earn a salary. However, this does not mean that ‘salt’ is the real definition of ‘wages’
Where do the words come from?
New words have entered (and continue to enter) the English language in many different ways. These are some of the most common ways.
Most of the words used in modern English have been borrowed from other languages. Although most of our vocabulary comes from Latin and Greek (often passing through other European languages), English has borrowed words from over 300 different languages around the world. Here are some examples:
● futon (it. Futon), from the Japanese word for “bed linen, sheets”
● gorilla (it. Gorilla), from the Greek Gorillai, a tribe of hairy women, possibly of African origin
● hamster (it. Hamster), from the German of the early Middle Ages ‘hamastra’
● kangaroo (it. kangaroo), from the aboriginal language of Guugu Yimidhirr, ‘gangurru’, refers to a kind of kangaroo
● kink (it. fold), from the Dutch, means “wrapped in a rope “
● mocassin (it. moccasin), from the Native American, Algonquin from Virginia, similar to ‘mäkäsn’ of the Powhatan tribe and ‘makisin’ of the Ojibwa tribe)
● molasses (it. melassa), from the Portuguese ‘melaços’, from the late Latin ‘mellceum’, from the Latin ‘mel’, (it. honey)
● muscle (it.muscle), from the Latin ‘musculus’ (it. mouse)
● slogan (it. slogan), from the Scottish ‘slogorne’, “battle cry”
● smorgasbord (it. refreshment), from the Swedish, literally, “table of bread and butter”
● whiskey (it. whiskey), from ancient Irish ‘uisce’ (it. water) and ‘bethad’ (it. “of life”)
Clipping or abbreviation
Some new words are simply abbreviated forms of pre-existing words, such as, for example, indie (it. Indie) from independent , exam (it. Exam) from examination , flu (it. Influence) from flu and fax (it. fax) by facsimile .
A new word can also be created from the combination of two or more pre-existing words: fire engine (it. Fire truck, literally fire + engine) and babysitter (it. Babysitter, literally guardian + child).
A merger, also called compound word, is a word formed by the union of sounds and meanings of two or more words. For example, the word moped (it. Moped), derives from mo (tor) + ped (al), in Italian motor + pedal and brunch (it. Brunch) from br (eakfast) + (l) unch, in Italian breakfast + lunch).
Conversion or functional change
Often new words are formed by changing their grammatical function within a sentence. For example, technological innovations have transformed some nouns into verbs such as: network (it. Network), Google and microwave (it. Microwave).
Transfer of proper names
Sometimes the names of people, places and things become words of the common vocabulary. For example, the name maverick (it. Nonconformist) derives from the name of an American breeder, Samuel Augustus Maverick. The saxophone takes its name from Sax , the surname of a 19th century Belgian family who built musical instruments.
Neologisms or processes Creativ i
Occasionally, new products or processes can lead to the creation of entirely new words. Such neologisms are usually short-lived and never enter a dictionary. However, some have resisted, such as the terms quark (it. Quark), coined by the writer James Joyce), galumph (it. Run sprawl ), coined by the writer Lewis Carroll, aspirin (it. Aspirin), which was originally the registered trademark, grok (it. to rock), neologism coined by the writer Robert A. Heinlein.
Imitation of sounds
Words can also be created through onomatopoeias, or by imitating the sounds that are associated with them, such as: boo (it. Whistle), bow-wow (it.bau bau), tinkle (it. Jingle) , click (it. click).
Why should we care about the history of words?
If the etymology of a word is not the same as its definition, why should we care about the history of words? Well, first of all, understanding how words were born can teach us a great deal about our culture. Furthermore, studying the history of words familiar to us can help us understand the meaning of unknown words, further enriching our vocabulary. Finally, word stories can often be both fun and inspiring. In short, as a boy would say, words are fun.