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The etymology ( borrowed from the ancient Greek ἐτυμολογία etymología ) - also word origin and also called origin for short - deals with the origin, history and meaning of the words . In the understanding of linguistics , the word origin is the explanation of the origin of a word or morpheme in a given shape and meaning. As an explanatory method based on the history of language ( diachronous ), it is part of historical linguistics , its results are collected in etymological dictionaries and are also included as additional information in dictionaries and lexicons of other types.

In older epochs, the etymology served as the “derivation of a word from its root and proof of its actual, true meaning” to explain a “truth” ( τὸ ἔτυμον ) laid down in the word, which was made accessible with the help of similarities of the word shape to other words and as a statement about the thing denoted by the word or understood as the actual, original word meaning. As a rhetorical argument ( argumentum a nomine ), the etymology in the form of a reference or an appeal to the assumed origin and original meaning of a word traditionally serves the purpose of supporting one's own argumentation with objective linguistic facts and thus lending it special persuasive power.


Etymology is a Greek foreign word and is derived from the ancient Greek word ἐτυμολογία etymología . This in turn contains the components ἔτυμος étymos ("true, real, really") and λόγος lógos ("word") and means in a broader sense something like "explanation of the truth inherent in a word". In German, the synonym word origin is also used for this .

The connection of the components is in Greek since the 1st century BC. BC ( Dionysius of Halicarnassus ), as well as the borrowing of etymologus in Latin ( Varro ), but according to the later testimony of Diogenes Laertius (VII.7), Chrysippus is said to have been in the 3rd century BC. Have written works with the title Περὶ τῶν ἐτυμολογικῶν ' On Etymological Topics ' and ἐτυμολογικόν ' Etymological '.

History of etymology


Already in ancient Greece there were philosophical currents that pursued the “correctness” of “names”, but the term “etymology” was not usually used for this activity. Heraclitus of Ephesus (around 500 BC) asked himself to what extent the name of a thing reflected the truth of a thing. In other words, to what extent the name actually corresponds to the object it denotes. Later, in his dialogue with Kratylos , Plato dealt in detail with the correctness of names. In this dialogue, Plato lets a representative of the mystical-religious thesis, according to which all words have their meaning by nature and do not require any definition, compete against a representative of the more modern counter -thesis, first attested in Kratylos , according to which the connection between words and theirs Meaning based on the arbitrary determination by humans. (For the discussion of linguistic accuracy in antiquity, see Siebenborn 1976.) Etymology was part of ancient grammar and, in addition to the philosophers, was mainly practiced by the so-called grammarians , but from today's point of view without a reliable methodology, so that it was based on mere speculation Derived derivations based on vague analogies in sound or typeface have mostly not withstood a critical examination by modern linguistics . One speaks therefore of pseudo-etymologies (also pseudo-etymologies), which do not differ significantly from so-called vulgar etymologies or folk etymologies , a phenomenon that still plays a not insignificant role in the non-scientific area and is often even used in argumentation, e.g. B. the erroneous derivation of densities from dense instead of Latin dictare . In ancient times, the etymology of a word was regarded as such an important part of the explanation of its meaning that even encyclopedias such as that of the late antique grammarist Isidore of Seville could bear the title Etymologiarum sive originum libri (Etymologies or origins [of the words], or Etymologiae for short ).

Other cultures, especially those with a long writing tradition such as India and China , dealt with etymology early on, which, among other things, should enable them to gain a deeper understanding of the traditional texts.

middle Ages

We find the climax of the "truth-seeking etymology" with Isidore of Seville at the beginning of the 7th century AD, that is, in the early Middle Ages . In his main work Etymologiae libri viginti he gives numerous examples of etymologies, the truth of which, however, is in doubt. Isidore of Seville also named many etymologies in order to explain things in an understandable way that are historically doubtful. For example: “persona est Exegese , Physiologus ” (which tries to explain animal names from the word shape), or the Legenda aurea , which first devotes wide attention to his name before the vita of a saint. Petrus Heliae also understands the etymological meaning of words as a synonym for a “veriloquium” per se (veriloquium): “because whoever etymologizes shows the true, i.e. H. the first origin of the word. "(Translation in: Arens 1969, 39)


Today, etymology is the discipline within historically comparative linguistics that tracks down the origin and historical change of individual words and records them in etymological dictionaries . Historical linguistics searches for recurring phenomena of language change and derives sound laws from them, which in turn make it easier to observe changes in a word in the course of history. In addition to the purely linguistic preoccupation with etymology, research in the history of language also brings benefits for a more precise understanding of texts and individual terms. Another area of ​​application is the transfer of the results to archeology. Linguistic historical relationships can provide clues for various archaeological issues, for example in the case of the reconstruction of early migratory movements. Sociolinguistic conclusions on social and cultural history are also in focus.

The journal Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia deals exclusively with etymological topics.

Etymology in Science and Society

In the context of linguistics, etymology wants to find out more about the individual phenomena of the historical change in a language. The knowledge gained in this way is intended to provide an expanded understanding of the development history of an individual language and the circumstances surrounding language change in general. The classic understanding of etymology and practical applications as mentioned above are mostly in the background. In the everyday, non-scientific study of etymology, on the other hand, the normative character of the early etymology has been more or less pronounced. For example, the history of a word demonstrates that a certain modern usage is wrong because it does not correspond to the historical one or is not based on the actual word meaning that becomes apparent in the history of the word .

Proponents of a weaker variant of this argument do not fundamentally reject this modern view, but hope that dealing with the development history of a word will provide new and further, in-depth aspects for an understanding of its meaning. It is assumed here that these aspects have been lost in the course of time and can be made conscious again through linguistic studies. This is justified by the fact that thinking can only take place in the images of perception as an image of reality and thus perception and, consequently, thinking is shaped by both the conscious and unconscious content of a term and its shape. The etymology is seen here as a way to make these unconscious parts perceptible and thus to be able to re-open this lost content for perception and thinking. So - in the tradition of ancient thinkers - a contribution to the richness of language and thought is to be made.

Regardless of the question of whether the verbal historical derivation cited is correct or not, representatives of both views come into contradiction to modern linguistic assumptions if they rely on a close and direct relationship between a conceptual concept and the form of the word with which it is expressed exist. This view is opposed to the functional view of linguistics that a concrete word form receives its meaning exclusively through arbitrariness and convention . Arbitrariness and convention have been key concepts in understanding characters in linguistics since the early 20th century; one refers to to Ferdinand de Saussure (.; dt Translator 1931/1967 French 1916th.). They say that the relationship between the shape and the meaning of signs, i.e. H. also of words, arbitrary (arbitrary) and conditioned by social convention. Taken on its own, a word therefore has no real meaning and effect other than that which results from the usual usage in the respective present. The existence of any additional meaning attached to the word in any way, which one could or should find out in some form, is doubted here. Under such an assumption, the interpretations of the word meaning put forward by the “normative” etymologists cannot claim any more validity than any alternative proposed new interpretation.

The notion of the arbitrariness of signs is supplemented by the theory of naturalness in modern linguistics through the discovery that many aspects of language are iconic (depicting), i.e. not exclusively arbitrary (arbitrary).

Etymological explanations are also often used to underpin ideologies of all stripes, e.g. B. esotericism, political religions, etc. v. a. m. For example, nationalists try to “prove” the supposed superiority of their own culture on the basis of its effect on the vocabulary of another language or to reconstruct desired family relationships between two cultures from a presumed language relationship. The etymological explanation seems to have a special, immediately illuminating “evidential value” in that what is already known (a word) is presented from a previously unknown side.

See also


For etymological dictionaries see the Etymological Dictionary article .

  • Hans Arens : Linguistics. The course of their development from antiquity to the present . 2nd, revised and greatly expanded edition. Alber, Freiburg / Munich 1969.
  • Helmut Birkhan : Etymology of German . Peter Lang, Bern a. a. 1985, ISBN 3-261-03206-5 . (= German textbook collection, 15)
  • Harri Meier : Principles of Etymological Research. Carl Winter University Press , Heidelberg 1986, ISBN 3-533-03645-6 .
  • Heike Olschansky: Folk etymology . Niemeyer, Tübingen 1996, ISBN 3-484-31175-4 . (= German linguistics, 175)
  • Heike Olschansky: Deceptive Words - Small Lexicon of Folk Etymologies , Philipp Reclam jun., Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-15-010549-8 .
  • Vittore Pisani: The Etymology. History - questions - method . Fink, Munich 1975.
  • Rüdiger Schmidt (Ed.): Etymology. Scientific book society, Darmstadt 1977 (= ways of research , 373), ISBN 3-534-06946-3 .
  • Wolfgang Schweickard : "Etymologia est origo vocabulorum ...". To understand Isidore's definition of etymology. In: Historiographia linguistica , 12, 1985, pp. 1-25.
  • Elmar Seebold : Etymology. An introduction using the example of the German language . Beck, Munich 1981, ISBN 3-406-08037-5 .
  • Jost Trier : Etymology. In: Joachim Ritter (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy. Volume 2, Basel 1972, Col. 816-818.
  • Jost Trier, Hans Schwarz: ways of etymology . E. Schmidt, Berlin 1981.

Web links

Wiktionary: Etymology  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: etymological spectrum  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Word origin - Duden , 2018; u. a. with "Origin and history of a word and its meaning."
  2. Formulated based on Max Pfister, Introduction to Romance Etymology , Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1980, p. 9: "Gr. Ἐτυμολογία is a combination of ἔτυμος 'true' and λόγος 'word' and describes the search for what is inherent in each word True ".