Etymology Games

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Etymology, the study of word origins and changes in meaning, can be a fascinating topic if taught in a fun and engaging way. This lesson provides teachers with etymology games designed for classroom use.


The English language is constantly evolving, therefore, it's important for students to understand both the origin of words and how they have and may change over time. The games and activities in this lesson will help your students gain an understanding of etymology and how the history of words impacts their future meanings and usage.

Country of Origin

This small group game encourages teamwork and quick thinking. First, put students into small teams. Next, write the following words on the blackboard, leaving out the language of origin.

  1. Cafe (French)
  2. Daily (Old English)
  3. Face (French)
  4. Fact (Latin)
  5. Aardvark (Afrikaans Dutch)
  6. Earth (Old English)
  7. Fabulous (Latin)
  8. Jaguar (Portuguese)
  9. Avant-garde (French)
  10. Fiasco (Italian)

(Feel free to add your own words to the list)

It's unlikely your students will correctly identify the origin language of all the words and that's ok. Give the teams a few minutes to write down which language they think each word comes from. When time is up, collect their answers. As you are grading their first responses, allow teams to use a dictionary to find the correct source of each word.

Reward the team who correctly identified the most words and then hand back the graded answers. Finally, have a class discussion about the correct origins of each word and solicit from students a list of other words commonly used in English that originated in other languages.

Word Evolution

In this game, you will provide students with a list of common words whose meanings have been significantly altered over time. Basically, students must try to guess the original meaning of the word. For example, nowadays people associate the word awful with something bad (an awful movie) or an extreme amount (an awful lot of money), but the word was originally used to describe something worthy of awe or amazement. After you tell the students how the game works, write these words on the blackboard.

  1. Nice
  2. Silly
  3. Amazed
  4. Naughty
  5. Backlog

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