The Etymology of Words

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  • 0:05 What is Etymology?
  • 1:23 Examples
  • 3:47 Function in Literature…
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Social Studies, and Science for seven years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Words are at the center of almost all forms of communication in our society. Watch this video lesson to learn about word etymology and how it affects our world.

What Is Etymology?

When early societies tried to communicate, the difference in language was a major obstacle. But as societies evolved, words also evolved. Over time this had a great impact on communication between languages. Over years and years, words continued to grow and change. When society entered the medieval times, people began to try to determine the etymology of words.

So what is etymology? Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how their meanings have changed throughout history. Words change every day. You can probably think of some words right now that have only come into existence recently. For instance, twenty years ago, if someone told you to 'Google it' when you needed information, you would be completely confused. On the same note, a hundred years ago if you started talking about what you watched on television last night, no one would have the slightest idea what object you were watching.

Since the first interest in discovering the evolution of words, etymology has become a true field of study. Finding how words change often relies on the societal changes and historical events of the world. Words can change meaning through time just like societies and people change. Let's look at some examples of the etymologies of words.


Now that you know that etymology refers to the origin of words, it is important to note that words in a language belong to certain language families. These are the groups of words that are in the same language and share similar characteristics. Some controversy exists on the true number of language families and which languages belong to which family. There are also some that believe all languages come from some ancient, extinct language. However, there are some common language families most agree on when discussing the etymology of any one word.

For example, Latin is a family that contains several different branching languages. French and Spanish are two of the languages in that family. Even many of our current day English words can be traced back to Latin. For instance, the word science originated from the Latin term scientia, which means to know. In fact, many of our scientific terms relate back to Latin language. This is mostly because the Latin society was the first to really focus on scientific principles and put names to those concepts. You can see this in the names of many of the elements on the periodic table. Most of the words used to name the elements have an etymology dating back to the Latin language.

Going beyond scientific terms, many of our everyday words also have an etymology traced back to Latin. For instance, the word school can be traced to the Middle English word scole, the Old English word scol and finally the Latin word schola meaning employed in learning.

Another language family contains the Germanic languages. Dutch, Swedish and English are all a part of the Germanic family. For example, the word heat comes from the Middle English word hete, which in turn came from the German word hitze, meaning hot. The word cat is another common English word that has a Germanic etymology. It comes from the old word catt, the Middle Dutch word katte and the Old German word kazza.

These are just two of the prevalent language families in the world today. Throughout history, several other families of languages have developed and are continuing to develop. Learning of various language families is very important when discussing etymology of words.

Function in Literature and Language

By now you should have a firm grasp of what etymology means and how words belong to certain families. Learning how a word has changed through time might seem like a moot point to you, but it can actually be a great help in literature and society in general.

For students, not only in literature courses, but in all fields of study, learning the etymology of words can be a great help. In any type of reading, you will ultimately come across words and terms that you are not familiar with. Not only will the context of the sentence help you define the term, but sometimes if you can analyze the parts of the words you can then define the whole term. For example, the prefix 're' has Latin roots with the meaning of again, to indicate repetition. Using this information, any word with the prefix 're' can be defined as that specific action happening again. As in: refurbish, retype, retrace and rewrite.

It might be easy to see how students and readers of all ages can use etymology to help them, but what about society as a whole? How does learning the origins of words help our world on a larger scale? The changes in any language often coincide with historical changes. Knowing this fact can help us understand causes and effects for major events in history.

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