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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


             The etymology of a word is the linguistic history and origins of the term, and provides facts on the varying derivations and formations it has undergone since its conception. The term etymology itself refers to the formal study and theory of the origins of words. The term is comprised of two parts, the Greek word etymon meaning “true sense” which in turn was derived from etymos “true, real, natural” and –logia, “study of, a speaking of”. It originated in the 14th century via Latin from the Greek word etymologia and emerged in Old French as ethimologie and Modern French as etymologie. It first appeared in De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Order of Things) by Bartholomew de Glanville in the 14th century, as he describes the importance of etymologies and the setting of the name.

As the definitions of words are capable of changing so dramatically, many individuals forgo the importance of a word’s derivations and simply consider its most present meaning. Etymologies serve great importance as it demonstrates the relationships between languages and reveals the culture and characteristics of language as a whole. Contemporary social and political trends are reflected by the transitions of words, particularly through the usage of slang. By determining the linkages between certain words that are similar in different languages, linguists are able to infer approximate dates on the encounter or contact between different cultures.

A major focal point regarding etymologies is the origin of language. The act of finding the sources of words date back to the first human documentation although it was not formally assigned the title of etymology until the Medieval era. The study of etymologies question the development of language, and historically, has spawned heated debates from literary critics. Famously, Plato’s Cratylus, argues that the physical characteristics and nature of the objects greatly influence the phonetics of its name. Formal language emerged as a result of the agreed convention of these sounds. Contrary to this, Aristotle simply perceived words as symbols and sounds collectively denoted meaning by population. As evidenced by the term’s root to etymos, also truth, Stoics believed that names were used to characterize the tangible object, and revealed the overall truth of things. Additionally, etymologies were absolutely vital in academics in the Middle Ages. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, one of first major introductions to etymologies, stressed the importance of educating oneself on etymologies. “Unless you know the name, the understanding of things vanishes … Every inquiry into a thing [or subject] is clearer when the etymology is known.

In the modern era, linguists no longer support the belief of the origin of the word as the true, essential meaning as Plato and the Stoics had believed due to the constant evolution of words. The era often skews the definition of words to suit their present ideals. People often adopt words that may not necessarily be used correctly in their conventional sense and its collective usage may eventually change the definition, extending its etymology.

Oxford University Press. "Etymology." Oxford English Dictionary . www.oed.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/ (accessed November 15, 2012).

Howatson, M. C. . "etymology." The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (3 ed.) . www.oxfordreference.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/ (accessed November 15, 2012).

Vauchez, André. "etymology." Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. www.oxfordreference.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/ (accessed November 16, 2012).

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