et·​y·​mol·​o·​gy | \ ˌe-tə-ˈmä-lə-jē How to pronounce etymology (audio) \
plural etymologies

Definition of etymology

1 : the history of a linguistic form (such as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language
2 : a branch of linguistics concerned with etymologies

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Other Words from etymology

etymological \ ˌe-​tə-​mə-​ˈlä-​ji-​kəl How to pronounce etymology (audio) \ adjective
etymologically \ ˌe-​tə-​mə-​ˈlä-​ji-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce etymology (audio) \ adverb

Commonly Confused: Etymology and Entomology

The etymology of etymology itself is relatively straightforward. Etymon means "origin of a word" in Latin, and comes from the Greek word etymon, meaning "literal meaning of a word according to its origin." Greek etymon in turn comes from etymos, which means "true." Be careful not to confuse etymology with the similar-sounding entomology. Entomon means "insect" in Greek, and entomology is the study of bugs.

Examples of etymology in a Sentence

Visible just beneath the entries are tantalizing glimpses of the lexicographer's craft: scouring periodicals for fresh coinages, poring over competing dictionaries in search of elusive etymologies and hounding writers and scholars in the service of … "ear candy" or plain old "duh." — Margalit Fox, New York Times Book Review, 18 June 1995 Professionals have always tried to seal the borders of their trade and to snipe at any outsider with a pretense to amateur enthusiasm (although amateurs who truly love their subject, as the etymology of their status proclaims, often acquire far more expertise than the average time-clock-punching breadwinner). — Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History, February 1991 True etymology, if there is such a thing, seeks to displace our attention back in time, to roots, whereas the "popular" variety tries to update words, to familiarize them where the so-called science estranges them. — Walter Redfern, Puns, 1984 Several different etymologies have been proposed.
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Recent Examples on the Web There’s a practical explanation for the etymology: Schioppettino wine often had a little bit of residual carbon dioxide in the bottle, resulting in some fizzling upon opening. Esther Mobley,, "This California version of an obscure Italian red wine will make you feel electric," 16 Dec. 2020 Definitions in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary support that etymology, too. Camille Caldera, USA TODAY, "Fact check: 'Hungover' refers to aftereffects, not the practice of sleeping over a rope," 23 Oct. 2020 Then, following that wild-goose chase of a paragraph, Amis presents us with a footnote—and another hundred words on etymology. Leo Robson, Harper's Magazine, "A Swing and Amis," 27 Oct. 2020 Chris Walsh of Arlington, Va., weighed in on the etymology of Travilah, the area of Potomac, Md., Answer Man wrote about recently. Washington Post, "Circular logic: There’s no ‘Scout’ for Fairfax’s Scout on the Circle," 24 Oct. 2020 Several stories that explain the etymology of common phrases, terms and symbols are nothing more than urban legends. Devon Link, USA TODAY, "Fact check: Origin stories for popular phrases are nothing more than urban legends," 17 Oct. 2020 Earlier this week, a seasonally appropriate observation about etymology triggered a lively Twitter discussion about the gap between British and American English. Ben Zimmer, WSJ, "‘Fall’: A Trans-Atlantic Battle Over the Name of the Season," 11 Sep. 2020 Timpanogos retains some of its tribal heritage not as a people, but as an individual love story that removes the etymology of its name. Nicole Walker, Longreads, "(Who Gets to) Just Up and Move," 10 Aug. 2020 Its very etymology offers a clue about what is at stake in the greatest challenges of the future, and what is needed to address them. Ed Yong, The Atlantic, "How the Pandemic Defeated America," 3 Aug. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'etymology.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of etymology

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for etymology

Middle English ethimologie, from Anglo-French, from Latin etymologia, from Greek, from etymon + -logia -logy

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The first known use of etymology was in the 14th century

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Cite this Entry

“Etymology.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

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More Definitions for etymology



English Language Learners Definition of etymology

: an explanation of where a word came from : the history of a word
: the study of word histories


et·​y·​mol·​o·​gy | \ ˌe-tə-ˈmä-lə-jē How to pronounce etymology (audio) \
plural etymologies

Kids Definition of etymology

: the history of a word shown by tracing it or its parts back to the earliest known forms and meanings both in its own language and any other language from which it may have been taken

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More from Merriam-Webster on etymology

Nglish: Translation of etymology for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of etymology for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about etymology

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