Is ELU tag guidance required to "accord" with tag guidance at Linguistics.SE? I ask because a recent update-change I made to the tag guidance for etymology was rolled back by a moderator, with the comment "Make sure the usage-guidance excerpt accords with the one used on Linguistics.SE".

My effort was intended to update existing tag guidance to conform with actual use of the tag on ELU. I changed the guidance to the 'loose definition' of etymology offered by Gerald Cohen in the preface to Etymology and Linguistic Principles:

The search for the origin of linguistic features: words, idioms, morphological elements, writing systems.

The tag guidance was (before I changed it)

Etymology is the history of the origin of words and phrases.

My change seemed to cover the range of legitimate uses of the etymology tag here at ELU, and especially included "idioms, morphological elements, writing systems", that is, linguistic features of English that are left out of the current guidance, which is

the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their forms and meanings have changed over time.

In my ignorance, I (1) didn't know our tag guidance had to "accord" with the guidance at Linguistics, (2) don't see how the change I made doesn't "accord" with and even improve on the Linguistics tag guidance, and especially (3) think questions focused on "history" are more appropriate at History.SE.

  • 3
    Frankly, I don't see any use for the tag system at all. It's totally disordered, full of nonsense, and no user derives any benefit from it as far as I can see. Jan 9, 2021 at 23:00
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    @JohnLawler, the "disordered, full of nonsense" part applies equally to SE, ELU as a whole, and the tag system. I use tags as filters and flags to impose a very rough order, and so to slightly reduce the nonsense.
    – JEL
    Jan 9, 2021 at 23:20
  • 1
    Agreed, though I don't care for tilting at entropy, so I have no use for them. I just look at the questions to see if any are interesting. Jan 9, 2021 at 23:22
  • @JohnLawler It's true that on many SE sites, probably including ELU, the tag system is so inconsistent as to be almost useless, with profuse misapplying of tags and ambiguity on what they're supposed to be for. Some SE sites, though, have a fairly rigorous system on how/when each type of tag should be applied, maintained and enforced by a band of watchful editors who fix up tagging on new users' questions. E.g. check out Literature some time - whether or not you agree with the choices made to organise that tagging system, at least there is a system and the posts on the site stick to it. Jan 16, 2021 at 21:22
  • Clearly ELU.SE is not to be one of those sites. Jan 16, 2021 at 21:51

1 Answer 1


In my view, the "history of the origin of words and phrases" wording currently associated with the "etymology" tag does not provide an accurate or helpful description of the sorts of etymology-related questions that pass muster at EL&U. To the contrary, a question that asks primarily about the linguistic history of a word is extremely likely to be close-voted either as being "not about the English language" or as being "general reference"—more often than not with a recommendation to consult Etymology Online or the OED for relevant etymological information.

The core problem is that the sorts of questions that amateur researchers can usefully answer with hitherto undiscovered information skew much more toward what I would call "word origin" details (first published occurrences and early meanings) than toward "etymology" as a linguist would be likely to understand that term. For that reason, I think the site would be much better served if, going forward, we replaced the "etymology" tag with a "word-origin" tag.

Unfortunately, EL&U has so many "etymology"-tagged questions at this point that I can't imagine anyone would have the time and inclination to review them individually to determine whether changing the "etymology" tag to "word-origin" would make sense in each case—even assuming that a majority of EL&U participants agreed that such a change in nomenclature was a good idea in the first place. At the same time, I don't recommend imposing a blanket conversion of "etymology" tags to "word-origin" tags because a close examination of the thousands of "etymology"-tagged questions at EL&U would surely turn up quite a few instances of questions that really are about "etymology" in its narrower linguistic sense of evolutionary antecedents of modern-language words and yet—for one reason or another—have not been closed.

For the past year or so, I have been adding the tag "phrase-origin" to questions that ask about first occurrences and early applications of various idioms and other set phrases. I think a similar effort on behalf of a new "word-origin" tag would be quite useful for similar questions about single words—slang words and professionl neologisms, in particular. But it is extremely late in the day to try to separate questions about the linguistic lineage of modern English words from questions about when and under what circumstances particular words began to appear in English writing.

That being the case, I think that JEL's effort to revise the tag guidance for "etymology" to reflect the sorts of questions that EL&U participants are generally willing to leave open on this site is the most reasonable way to achieve a reconciliation between the formal guidance that the site offers its visitors about on-topic "etymology" questions and the close-voting practices that EL&U site participants actually enforce. I don't see any real-world benefit that would result from insisting that the description of "etymology" as applied at EL&U must accord with the description of "etymology" as applied at Linguistics.SE, given that close voters at EL&U consider "etymology" in the Linguistics.SE sense to be almost wholly off-topic here.

  • Could you edit in that the current number of non-duplicate Etymology questions is ~5295? And with looking for unclosed as well, that number drops to ~4738?
    – Malady
    Jan 22, 2021 at 0:57
  • @Malady, who is "this mod guy [that] does wanna get rid of the Etymology overload"?
    – JEL
    Jan 26, 2021 at 3:58
  • @JEL - Whoops, I thought I saw a diamond, but I was wrong.
    – Malady
    Jan 26, 2021 at 14:27
  • @Malady, that's rough (a diamond in the), so you weren't altogether wrong, and there are many mod facets to Sven. I think you may have misinterpreted the answer though. Is this where you got the idea Sven wants to "get rid of the Etymology overload"?
    – JEL
    Jan 26, 2021 at 18:46
  • @JEL - Yeah. Overhaul / change / whatever, being stopped by Etymology having too much inertia from its high question count.
    – Malady
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:11
  • @Malady, thanks for undertaking overhaul changes on your own initiative. I think, however, that it might be more in keeping with the SE model if you proposed such sweeping changes on Meta.ELU before commencing, just to see what responses you get. The etymology tag, for example, has a high question count because it's what a lot of people coming here to ask questions think they're asking about, and also what a lot of people answering questions here think they're talking about when they answer. So, you might want to ask your fellow moderators (ELU participants) before bigfooting them.
    – JEL
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:44
  • @Malady: I appreciate your efforts to tag questions about phrase origin with the "phrase-origin" tag—and I have voted to approve a number of those proposed changes. But in general I think we should not remove the "etymology" tag from questions that are marked with it. My reasoning is that people at this website use the "etymology" tag to identify questions about first occurrences, early mutations, and emerging meanings of both single words and phrases—not strictly about the linguistic progenitors of English words from other languages. And we don't have a tag for single word origin questions...
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:48
  • ...comparable to "phrase-origin," so the stretching of "etymology" beyond normal recognition will continue regardless of whether we identify phrase origin questions as such. At this point (eleven years into the existence of EL&U), the horse is not only out of the barn, but several counties away. Under those circumstances, I think we should continue to use "etymology" as the all-encompassing term for questions about single word origin, phrase origin, and stray instances of linguistic etymology that escape closure. I am not inclined to try to introduce "word-origin" as a new tag at this point.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:48
  • @SvenYargs, you are aware word-origin is mapped to etymology in the tag synonyms? I think the mapping was done 10 years ago, with the most recent re-doing Sep 28.
    – JEL
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:49
  • @JEL: Nope—any consciousness I had of that fact was long gone until you just mentioned it. In all likelihood, I tried to use "word-origin" as a tag once long ago, got the redirect to 'etymology,' went along with it, and forgot all about the existence of the redirect and the synonym status of "word-origin." If we were starting over, I would argue for treating "word-origin" as a useful subcategory of "etymology" (as I think "phrase-origin" is) rather than as a synonym. But we aren't starting over.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 26, 2021 at 19:59
  • Maybe "single-word-origin" or "individual-word-origin" going forward? Not that either are useful to me, particularly; my interest amounts to getting a list of all etymology questions with one click, an interest complicated by having to also get a list of phrase-origin questions--not that I care much if at all about that complication.
    – JEL
    Jan 26, 2021 at 20:07

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