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ETYMOLOGY (Gr. ἔτυμος, true, and λόγος, account), that part or branch of the science of linguistics which deals with the origin or derivation of words. The Greek word ἔτυμος, in so far as it was applied to words, referred to the real underlying meaning rather than to the origin. It was the Stoics who asserted that the discovery of τὸ ἔτυμον would explain the essence of the things and ideas represented by words. Plato in the Cratylus makes a nearer approach to the modern view when he connects, e.g. γυνή, woman, with γονή, seed, while he jests at such etymological feats as the derivation of οὐρανός, heaven, ἀπὸ τοῦ ὁρᾶν τἃ ἄνω, from looking at things above, or ἄνθρωπος, man, from ὁ ἀναθρῶν ἃ ὄπωπεν, he who looks up at what he sees. Until the comparative study of philology and the development of the laws underlying phonetic changes, the derivation of words was a matter mostly of guess-work, sometimes right but more often wrong, based on superficial resemblances of form and the like. This popular etymology, to which the Germans have given the name Volksetymologie or folk-etymology, has had much influence in the form which words take (e.g. “crawfish” or “crayfish,” from the French crevis, modern écrevisse, or “sand-blind,” from samblind, i.e. semi-, half-blind), and has frequently been the occasion of homonyms. W.W. Skeat has embodied in certain canons or rules some well-known principles which should be observed in giving the etymology of a word; these may be usefully given here: “(1) Before attempting an etymology, ascertain the earliest form and use of the word, and observe chronology. (2) Observe history and geography; borrowings are due to actual contact. (3) Observe phonetic laws, especially those which regulate the mutual relation of consonants in the various Aryan languages, at the same time comparing the vowel sounds. (4) In comparing two words, A and B, belonging to the same language, of which A contains the lesser number of syllables, A must be taken to be the more original word, unless we have evidence of contraction or other corruption. (5) In comparing two words, A and B, belonging to the same language and consisting of the same number of syllables, the older form can usually be distinguished by observing the sound of the principal vowel. (6) Strong verbs, in the Teutonic languages, and the so-called “irregular verbs” in Latin, are commonly to be considered as primary, other related forms being taken from them. (7) The whole of a word, and not a portion only, ought to be reasonably accounted for; and, in tracing changes of form, any infringement of phonetic laws is to be regarded with suspicion. (8) Mere resemblances of form and apparent connexion in sense between languages which have different phonetic laws or no necessary connexion are commonly a delusion, and 865 are not to be regarded. (9) When words in two different languages are more nearly alike than the ordinary phonetic laws would allow, there is a strong probability that one language has borrowed the word from the other. Truly cognate words ought not to be too much alike. (10) It is useless to offer an explanation of an English word which will not also explain all the cognate forms” (Introduction to Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1898).

An English word is either “the extant formal representative or direct phonetic descendant of an earlier (Teutonic) word; or it has been adopted or adapted from some foreign language,” adoption being a popular, and adaptation being a literary or learned process; finally, there is formation, i.e. the “combination of existing words (foreign or native) or parts of words with each other or with living formatives, i.e. syllables which no longer exist as separate words, but yet have an appreciable signification which they impart to the new product” (see Introduction to the Oxford New English Dictionary, p. xx). A further classification of words according to their origin is that into (1) naturals, i.e. purely native words, like “mother,” “father,” “house”; (2) those which become perfectly naturalized, though of foreign origin, like “cat,” “mutton,” “beef”; (3) denizens, words naturalized in usage but keeping the foreign pronunciation, spelling and inflections, e.g. “focus,” “camera”; (4) aliens, words for foreign things, institutions, offices, &c., for which there is no English equivalent, e.g., menu, table d’hôte, impi, lakh, mollah, tarbush; (5) casuals, e.g., bloc, Ausgleich, sabotage, differing only from “aliens” in their temporary use. The full etymology of a word should include the phonetic descent, the source of the word, whether from a native or from a foreign origin, and, if the latter, whether by adoption or adaptation, or, if a formed word, the origin of the parts which go to make it up. In the present edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica such full etymologies, which would be necessary and in place in an etymological dictionary, have not been given in every instance, but brief etymological notes are appended, showing in outline the sources and history, and in many cases the development in meaning. (See also Dictionary.)

Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected. They appear in the text like this, and the explanation will appear when the mouse pointer is moved over the marked passage. Sections in Greek will yield a transliteration when the pointer is moved over them, and words using diacritic characters in the Latin Extended Additional block, which may not display in some fonts or browsers, will display an unaccented version.

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