My understanding is that etymology refers only to the origin of words, while referring to proverbs/phrases and saying we would speak of their origin, not their etymology.

The site etymology tag refers both to words and phrases but the description given from the OED clearly refers only to words.

We also have the tag phrase-origin but it shows no description. Other tags like “proverbs” and “sayings” do not explicitly refer to their origin.

The following old question uses the tag etymology for a phrase, for instance, but there are other instances.

I agree that we may easily assume an extention in the usage of the term etymology that encompasses both word and phrases, but as a site language I think we should adopt a stricter, more precise view.

  • 2
    In my view, the term word corresponds to the linguistic concept of lexeme, which includes both words and idioms (in the narrow sense of “fixed phrase whose meaning is not derivable from its constituents in the same way a “word” in the narrow sense means a fixed sequence of letters whose meaning is not derivable from those letters”). If we adopt that view, “etymology” applies equally to all lexemes, regardless if they’re composed of letters and spaces or only letters.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 1, 2017 at 15:09
  • I think word means: A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/word , but I may be wrong. In any case, I think it is difficult to define a proverb as a word.
    – user66974
    Oct 1, 2017 at 15:11
  • 1
    Perhaps it's worth a main-site question. Does "etymology" apply only to single-words? or something like that.
    – NVZ Mod
    Oct 1, 2017 at 15:15
  • 3
    Oops. Spoke too soon: Can the term “etymology” be applied to a phrase or only individual words?
    – NVZ Mod
    Oct 1, 2017 at 15:15
  • 2
    'origin' sounds much better.
    – Mitch
    Oct 1, 2017 at 15:45
  • If we change the tag, we probably also need to update the help center's on topic page to make express mention of phrases. We do not do that as of yet, but it can be inferred from our local definition of etymology.
    – Tonepoet
    Oct 3, 2017 at 14:23
  • @Tonepoet - not sure you understood my question.
    – user66974
    Oct 3, 2017 at 17:52
  • Related on inspection, though not obviously so: english.meta.stackexchange.com/q/2846/8019 and the long discussion about it Oct 5, 2017 at 17:39

1 Answer 1


Linguists often joke that the best definition of "word" is "a thing you put spaces around".

In general I don't think it is very productive for this site to separate words and phrases or idioms. It doesn't match what users expect. For example, more than half of the phrase requests are also tagged single word request - people often care about requesting a single word (wrongheadedly IMO), but if they're after a phrase/idiom they're usually happy to accept single words as well. There have been calls for those tags to be made synonyms in the past, and I think that would be appropriate.

The etymology of an English lexeme is a common type of question on this site. I can't see how it would meaningfully help to separate out the etymology questions of single words from phrases/idioms. Especially considering some compound words which are freely written as single words, hyphenated, or as two words. The only thing such a separation would support is some kind of linguistic purity, which is not what this site is generally on about.

And besides, the tag is already being used for phrases/idioms. The appropriate course of action would be to make phrase-origin a synonym.

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