I wonder what will happen after knowing the origin of a word. I see 7-8 questions about it everyday. Is it really useful?


6 Answers 6


It is useful to the extent that it is useful to understand and investigate the origins and evolution of languages in general.

If you are a fork-lift operator, then no, it's not very useful to the core tasks of your day-to-day life. If you're a linguist or historian, it is extremely useful. If you are someone who is interested in how languages work, knowledge for its own sake, and/or understanding the world around you, then it can be fascinating.

As a linguist, the origin of certain words could theoretically change the entire direction of my research. Is that useful enough for you?

  • 4
    +1 I agree with you. The etymology might not be related with the modern meaning of a word, but it explains a lot about why and how that word has that meaning now.
    – Alenanno
    May 9, 2011 at 9:32
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    Certain questions regarding usage, from an editorial standpoint, are often informed and clarified by etymology. I absolutely do not think that words are completely detached from their etymologies. If the meaning of a word drifts over time, then the etymology itself is drifting, and expert users will pay attention to that.
    – The Raven
    May 9, 2011 at 15:45

I used to work as a writing tutor and would hear "English is stupid, it doesn't make any sense!" at least once a day. Studying the origin of words and constructs allowed me to help students understand that some of the stuff might not make sense today, but it did at one point.

Once students understand that modern English is built on many antiquated legacy systems, and once they understand that English grows organically, they are more accepting of the flaws and are more receptive to learning.

So, from an educator's perspective, yes, history of words is important.


Word origin is interesting. At least, it is for some people. I like knowing the history of a word and the evolution of how we speak. I like it for the same reason I enjoy most complex systems: I find complexity beautiful and entertaining. Language is insanely complex. Unraveling that complexity involves understanding why we use the words we do.

Uses for that understanding include:

  • instinctively interpreting a word you have never heard before
  • creating a new word to describe an original idea or concept that hasn't been given its own word yet
  • communication across language barriers
  • comprehending older documents
  • translating between dialects and understanding the reason for different connotations in different cultures
  • word games and puzzles
  • creating an artificial language for fun

Also, the more of the system you understand the less you need to memorize things by brute force. It is easier to remember how things connect than remember each individual connection. Word origin and history is part of this.

To drive the point home, word origin is a thing. Finding a use for that thing isn't too difficult if you want to find a use. If you don't happen to use it, good for you. Some of us do stuff with those things; good for us.

  • 2
    Agreed in full. In fact, these are some of the reasons why I have made the study of language my life's work and the foundation of my professional career. Language is indeed "insanely complex" and therein lies the challenge of solving its many problems. Seemingly straightforward queries like, "What does it mean to "mean" something" can be astonishingly difficult to answer, often veering into philosophical territory.
    – The Raven
    May 10, 2011 at 23:15

Word origin is very important. Knowing the etymology of a word provides enhanced perspective about its most effective use. You understand its original meaning and how it may have transformed over time, how people have used it past and present. You can differentiate subtle differences with similar or related words, both now and past.

From etymology, you begin to see patterns and relationships between languages. You begin to see patterns and gain understanding about the development of words. You gain greater capacity to comprehend great writing past and present through the clarity obtained. You enrich your ability to communicate by expanding your precision control over meaning based on the words you now more wisely choose to employ.

It is a form of history. When reading anything from the past, understanding the etymology of words is profoundly enlightening, as it clarifies meaning that can be otherwise lost or misconstrued by the passage of time.

Many great writers have a love of etymology. Tolkein was one.

  • 1
    +1 for the mention of "patterns". Since I am interested in pronunciation, knowing the etymology allows to see patterns. This way English speaking becomes less random than how it appears at the first sight. May 9, 2011 at 22:24

From the FAQ:

The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts. Questions on the following topics are welcomed here:

  • Etymology (history of words’ development)

So yes, this is a core function of the site.

  • it is, but also meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/939/… and I feel some of these are basically "reference book" answers. May 8, 2011 at 22:52
  • maybe "this site", but what will change when you know the origin of a word.. that's the point.
    – Gigili
    May 8, 2011 at 22:54
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    @zizi: well, this meta site is all about discussing the main site. So it's only natural that waiwai933 didn't read your question as "Is etymology of any use in general?"
    – RegDwigнt
    May 8, 2011 at 22:59
  • @reg I think what zizi is trying to say is basically the same thing as the "general reference" close reason. blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/02/are-some-questions-too-simple May 9, 2011 at 0:37
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    @Jeff: frankly, that's not how I read her question at all ("I wonder what will happen after knowing the origin of a word"), or her comments above yours ("maybe [etymology matters for] this site, but what will change when you know it" and "[my question] has only one answer: 'it sucks'"). The way I read all this, she just couldn't care less about etymology in general, and has trouble figuring out why anybody else would be interested in it at all. But of course, she's welcome to clarify.
    – RegDwigнt
    May 9, 2011 at 0:49
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    I do feel that some Answers dwell on the etymology of a word or phrase when it's not directly relevant to the actual Question. But many other current and future users might be interested in that etymology even if OP isn't, so I wouldn't be too critical. It's an unavoidable consequence of the OP / Other users duality on this kind of site. May 9, 2011 at 4:01
  • knowing the etymology (meaning and phonetic change history) of a word does nothing for the current meaning of the word. The word in question is pronounced as it is now and means what it does now, and there's no talking to people who are dead (or slightly older for that matter).

  • one can use a word perfectly well under most circumstances without knowing its formal dictionary definition, but knowing that definition will certainly allow you to use it better. Knowing its etymology may bring out more nuances and connotations to the current semantics that you didn't realize are currently there. There are academic interests in them, too.

  • "knowing the etymology (meaning and phonetic change history) of a word does nothing for the current meaning of the word." i doubt even it helps about usage. origins can be interesting sometimes, but 1%.
    – Gigili
    May 9, 2011 at 9:00
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    @zizi: To clarify, if you don't know the current meaning of a word, then, especially for latinate neologisms, the etymology can be pretty important.
    – Mitch
    May 9, 2011 at 12:38

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