HistoryClassical Greek interest in words owed much to the development of alphabetic writing, in which they were laid out for inspection like merchandise. Early investigators of words included the Stoics of the 4c BC, who held that all languages were in a slow state of decline from erstwhile perfection. They therefore looked for the ETYMON or true first form of a word. Their pessimistic view survives among those who insist that the best writers are long dead, and their belief in etyma continues among those who argue that the original meaning of a word has current as well as chronological priority over any later senses it may develop. In Spain in the 7c, St Isidore of Seville compiled a 20-part encyclopedia called Originum sive etymologiarum libri (Books of Origins or Etymologies), more commonly known as the Etymologiae. He took the view that the essence of a word could be found associatively: the Latin homo (man), adjective humanus, derived from humo (from the soil), because God made man from clay. This view served a didactic and mnemonic end, and was influenced by Hebrew precedents in the Old Testament, in which words were accounted for through homonymic comparisons (Hebrew adam being both man and clay). Isidore's students of Latin remembered cadaver as a kind of theological acronym of CAro DAta VERmibus (flesh given to worms). Isidore appears to have sought to formalize what is now called FOLK ETYMOLOGY, in which associative guessing dominates. His ideological approach was not unique. In the 20c, it has been used by feminists reinterpreting history and boycott for propaganda purposes as his story and boy cott, so as to be able to formulate herstory and girlcott.
Isidore's views on etymology were affected by his belief that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew in Eden and that the story of the Tower of Babel was literally true. This continued to be the majority view among scholars through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and conditioned the research of such 18–19c enthusiasts as the Englishman John Horne Tooke and the American Noah Webster. Both were convinced that language was the product of historical development, but lacked a non-biblical theory with which to transform traditional speculation into science. The study was transformed, however, by Sir William Jones and the comparative philologists, who depended on a painstaking analysis of textual evidence from many languages. As a consequence of their work, 20c etymology is part of historical linguistics.
NatureContemporary etymology is concerned with both fact and hypothesis. As with information in the fossil record of paleontology, what is known of the origin and development of a word or its elements is a matter of chance, since only the earliest recorded forms and meanings can be directly studied. Earlier forms reconstructed by means of this recorded evidence and the meanings assumed for such forms are hypothetical and need to be treated with caution. Where such forms are shown in writing or print, they are conventionally preceded by an asterisk (*) to mark their status. For English, such forms are usually those of INDO-EUROPEAN ROOTS and their derivatives, or Romanic and Germanic roots. Thus, the -logy part of the word etymology goes back to an IE ROOT *leg- (collect). Many words, however, cannot be taken so far back; the recorded evidence does not suffice, and so etymologists may tag a word ‘o.o.o.’ (of obscure origin) or ‘origin unknown’.
Historical changes in meaning are unpatterned, because DERIVATIONS are usually idiomatic; the meaning of the whole is not simply the sum of the meanings of the parts. The adjective sedate goes back to the Latin verb sedare (to settle: a person, a dispute, a war), which comes from the IE root *sed- (sit); hence the basic meaning ‘(having been) settled’. The derived adjective sedative is then something that tends to settle someone. However, in Modern English, the adjective sedate means ‘deliberately composed and dignified by one's own character or efforts’, not (as sedative would suggest) ‘stupefied by the effects of a drug’. The Modern English verb sedate is a backformation from sedative and therefore draws on the meaning of sedative and not on the meaning of the earlier adjective sedate. The homonymic adjective and verb sedate share a common origin in IE *sed-, but have developed such divergent meanings that the ancient adjective cannot suitably describe someone who shows the effects of the recent verb. As the 19c German philologist Max Müller wrote: ‘The etymology of a word can never give us its definition’ (1880).
Formal and semantic changesIt is therefore not surprising that the etymology of some common words reveals origins very unlike their modern form, meanings, or both. Thus, the four words dough, figure, lady, and paradise all derive in part at least from the IE root *dheigh- (to knead clay). Three of these words specialize or narrow the knead part of that meaning and ignore the clay part: (1) Dough is something that is kneaded like clay. (2) Figure derives from Latin figura, which comes in turn from IE *dhigh-ūrā, something formed by kneading or manipulation. Feign, fiction, and effigy are from the same root. (3) Lady derives from OE hlāfdige, composed of hlāf (loaf) and *digan (knead). A lady was the member of the house who kneaded the loaf, and the hlāford (from which comes lord) was its guardian. Paradoxical developments of meaning attend the changes in lady. From one who kneads the dough it became both ‘the chief female of the household’ and hence the one least likely to deal with such chores. However, the fourth word specializes the clay part of the original meaning and ignores the knead part: paradise, originally an enclosed garden, from Indo-Iranian pairi-daēza (walled around), from pairi (around: compare periscope) and daēza (wall, originally made of clay). Few words escape such changes, because change of form and meaning is inherent in language. Etymological study works at the level of the individual word, but with reference to more general rules of LANGUAGE CHANGE, the basic fact of language.
See BORROWING, CALQUE, CATACHRESIS, FOLK ETYMOLOGY, INDO-EUROPEAN ROOTS, LOAN, LOANWORD, NAME, PARTRIDGE, PHILOLOGY, RADIATION, SEMANTIC CHANGE.
et·y·mol·o·gy / ˌetəˈmäləjē/ • n. (pl. -gies) the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. ∎ the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning. DERIVATIVES: et·y·mo·log·i·cal / -məˈläjikəl/ adj. et·y·mo·log·i·cal·ly adv. et·y·mol·o·gist / -jist/ n.
So etymological XVI, etymologist XVII, etymologize XVI.