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The matter in boldface square brackets preceding the definition is the etymology. Meanings given in roman type within these brackets are not definitions of the entry, but are meanings of the Middle English, Old English, or non-English words within the brackets.

The etymology traces a vocabulary entry as far back as possible in English (as to Old English), tells from what language and in what form it came into English, and (except in the case of such words outside the general vocabulary of English as bascule and zloty) traces the pre-English source as far back as possible if the source is an Indo-European language. These etyma are printed in italics.

Old, Middle, and Modern English

The etymology usually gives the Middle English and the Old English forms of words in the following style:

1nap . . . intransitive verb . . . [Middle English nappen, from Old English hnappian . . .]
1old . . . adjective [Middle English, from Old English eald . . .]

An etymology in which a word is traced back to Middle English but not to Old English indicates that the word is found in Middle English but not in those texts that have survived from the Old English period:

1slab . . . noun [Middle English slabbe]
1nag . . . noun . . . [Middle English nagge; akin to Dutch negge small horse]

An etymology in which a word is traced back directly to Old English with no intervening mention of Middle English indicates that the word has not survived continuously from Old English times to the present. Rather, it died out after the Old English period and has been revived in modern times:

ge·mot . . . noun [Old English gemt . . .]
thegn . . . . . . noun . . . [Old English . . .]

An etymology is not usually given for a word created in English by the combination of existing constituents or by functional shift. This indicates that the identity of the constituents is expected to be self-evident to the user.

book·shelf . . . noun . . . : an open shelf for holding books
1fire·proof . . . adjective . . . : proof against or resistant to fire
off-put·ting . . . adjective . . . : that puts one off : REPELLENT, DISCONCERTING
penal code noun . . . : a code of laws concerning crimes and offenses and their punishment
3stalk noun . . . 1 : the act of stalking

In the case of a family of words obviously related to a common English word but differing from it by containing various easily recognizable suffixes, an etymology is usually given only at the base word, even though some of the derivatives may have been formed in a language other than English:

1equal . . . adjective [Middle English, from Latin aequalis, from aequus level, equal] . . . 1 a (1) : of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another
equal·i·ty . . . noun . . . 1 : the quality or state of being equal
equal·ize . . . transitive verb . . .1 : to make equal

While equalize was formed in Modern English, equality was actually borrowed into Middle English (via Anglo-French) from Latin aequalitas.

Incorporating material from major scholarly reference works completed in recent years, the etymologies of late Old and Middle English words borrowed from French now apply the label "Anglo-French" to all medieval French words known to have been used in French documents written in Britain before about 1400. This treatment acknowledges that literate English speakers then were typically bilingual or trilingual readers and writers who cultivated distinctive varieties of Latin and French as well as of English, and that words moved easily from one to another of these three languages. The label "Anglo-French" should not be taken to mean that the etymon is attested exclusively in Anglo-French, for in the great majority of cases the word has a cognate form in the continental northern French of Picardy and Normandy or the French of Paris and its surroundings. Because Anglo-French is one dialect of medieval French, it falls within the domain of wider labels "Old French" and "Middle French," which cover all dialects of French in their respective time frames. A similar caution applies to derivative words:

1jour·ney . . . noun . . . [Middle English, from Anglo-French jurnee day, day's journey, from jur day, from Late Latin diurnum . . .]

This etymology does not mean that the derivation of jurnee from jur took place only in Anglo-French. Forms corresponding to Anglo-French jurnee exist in other dialects of Old and Middle French, as well as in Old Occitan, and the word survives in Modern French as journée, "day."

Languages Other Than English

The etymology gives the language from which words borrowed into English have come. It also gives the form or a transliteration of the word in that language if the form differs from that in English:

1mar·ble . . . noun [Middle English, from Anglo-French marbre, from Latin marmor, from Greek marmaros]
how·it·zer . . . noun [Dutch houwitser, ultimately from Czech houfnice ballista]
souk . . . noun [Arabic sq market]

In a few cases the expression "ultimately from" replaces the more usual "from" This expression indicates that one or more intermediate steps have been omitted in tracing the derivation of the form preceding the expression from the form following it:

tri·lo·bite . . . noun [ultimately from Greek trilobos three-lobed, from tri- + lobos lobe]

When a language name that is not itself an entry in the dictionary is used in an etymology, a short parenthetical definition will immediately follow the name:

kook·a·bur·ra . . . noun [Wiradhuri (Australian aboriginal language of central New South Wales) gugubarra]

However, subfamily, language, or dialect names modified by qualifiers that simply add geographical orientation—as "Interior Salish", "MF (Picard dial.)," or "Southern Paiute"—will not be further defined as long as both the qualifier and the word being qualified are both entries in the dictionary.

Assumed or Reconstructed Forms

An asterisk placed before a word means that it is assumed to have existed or has been reconstructed by means of comparative evidence. In some cases, the assumption may be due to lack of evidence:

4bore noun [Middle English *bore wave, from Old Norse bra] (1601)

The word is unattested before Modern English, though the likelihood is strong that it was borrowed from Scandinavian much earlier. The case of the word battlement is somewhat different:

bat·tle·ment . . . noun [Middle English batelment, from Anglo-French *bataillement, from batailler to fortify with battlements — more at BATTLE]

It is highly probable that bataillement existed in Anglo-French, given that both the underlying verb batailler and the Middle English derivative batelment are attested.

The asterisk is invariably used before words labeled "Vulgar Latin," the traditional name for the unrecorded spoken Latin of both the uneducated and educated, especially in the final centuries of the Roman Empire. Vulgar Latin forms can be reconstructed on the basis of their later outcome in the Romance languages and of their relationship with known Latin words:

1can·vas . . . noun [Middle English canevas, from Anglo-French canevas, chanevaz, from Vulgar Latin *cannabaceus hempen, from Latin cannabis hemp . . .]

Words of Unknown Origin

When the source of a word appearing as a main entry is unknown, the expression "origin unknown" is usually used. Only in exceptional circumstances (as with some ethnic names) does the absence of an etymology mean that it has not been possible to furnish an informative etymology. More often, it means that no etymology is believed to be necessary. This is the case, for instance, with most of the entries identified as variants and with many derivatives.

Etymologies of Technical Words

Much of the technical vocabulary of the sciences and other specialized studies consists of words or word elements that are current in two or more languages, with only such slight modifications as are necessary to adapt them to the structure of the individual language in each case. Many words and word elements of this kind have become sufficiently a part of the general vocabulary of English as to require entry in an abridged dictionary. Because of the vast extent of the relevant published material in many languages and in many scientific and other specialized fields, it is impracticable to ascertain the language of origin of every such term. Yet it would not be accurate to formulate a statement about the origin of any such term in a way that could be interpreted as implying that it was coined in English. Accordingly, whenever a term that is entered in this dictionary belongs recognizably to this class of internationally current terms and whenever no positive evidence is at hand to show that it was coined in English, the etymology recognizes its international status and the possibility that it originated elsewhere than in English by use of the label "International Scientific Vocabulary":

mega·watt . . . noun [International Scientific Vocabulary]
phy·lo·ge·net·ic . . . adjective [International Scientific Vocabulary, from New Latin phylogenesis . . .]
1-ol noun suffix [International Scientific Vocabulary, from alcohol]

Compression of Information

An etymology giving the name of a language (including Middle English or Old English) and not giving the foreign (or Middle English or Old English) form indicates that this form is the same as that of the entry word:

ka·pok . . . noun [Malay]
1po·grom . . . noun [Yiddish, from Russian . . .]
1dumb . . . adjective [Middle English, from Old English . . .]

An etymology giving the name of a language (including Middle English or Old English) and the form in that language but not giving the foreign (or Middle English or Old English) meaning indicates that this meaning is the same as that expressed in the first definition in the entry:

1wea·ry . . . adjective . . . [Middle English very, from Old English wrig . . .] . . . 1 : exhausted in strength . . .

When a word from a foreign language (or Middle English or Old English) is a key element in the etymologies of several related entries, the meaning of the word is usually given at only one of the entries:

ve·lo·ce . . . adverb or adjective [Italian, from Latin veloc-, velox]
ve·loc·i·pede . . . noun [French vélocipède, from Latin veloc-, velox + ped-, pes foot — more at FOOT]
ve·loc·i·ty . . . noun . . . [Middle French velocité, from Latin velocitat-, velocitas, from veloc-, velox quick; probably akin to Latin vegēre to enliven — more at WAKE]

When an etymology includes the expression "by alteration" and the altered form is not cited, the form is the term given in small capital letters as the definition:

ole . . . adjective [by alteration] . . .: OLD

When the origin of a word is traced to the name of a person or place not further identified:

far·ad . . . noun [Michael Faraday]
jodh·pur . . . noun [Jodhpur, India]

Related Words

When a word of Indo-European origin has been traced back to the earliest language in which it is attested, words descended from the same Indo-European base in other languages (especially Old High German, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit) are usually given:

nav·el . . . noun [Middle English, from Old English nafela; akin to Old High German nabalo navel, Latin umbilicus, Greek omphalos]
1wind . . . noun . . . [Middle English, from Old English; akin to Old High German wint wind, Latin ventus, Greek anai to blow, Sanskrit vti it blows]

Sometimes, however, to avoid space-consuming repetition, the expression "more at" directs the user to another entry where the cognates are given:

ho·ly . . . adjective . . . [Middle English, from Old English hlig; akin to Old English hl whole — more at WHOLE]

Besides the use of "akin to" to denote relatedness, some etymologies make special use of "akin to" as part of a longer formula "of . . . origin; akin to. . . . " This formula indicates that a word was borrowed from some language belonging to a group of languages whose name is inserted in the blank before the word origin, that it is impossible to say that the word in question is a borrowing of a particular attested word in a particular language of the source group, and that the form cited in the blank after the expression akin to is related to the word in question as attested within the source group:

ba·nana . . . noun . . . [Spanish or Portuguese; Spanish, from Portuguese, of African origin; akin to Wolof banaana banana]
2briar noun [ . . . French bruyère heath, from Middle French bruiere, from Vulgar Latin *brucaria, from Late Latin brucus heather, of Celtic origin; akin to Old Irish froech heather; akin to Greek ereik heather]

This last example shows the two contrasting uses of "akin to." The word cited immediately after "of Celt origin; akin to" is an attested Celtic word descended from the same etymon as the unattested Celtic source of the Latin word. The word cited after the second "akin to" is evidence that the Celtic etymon has deeper relations within Indo-European.