Idioms and phrases and other special words are helpful to express our feelings accurately and articulate our speech well. However, while learning these idioms or phrases or right words, if we know its etymology which tells about its derivation and origin of the word, it will become easy to remember the meanings of those. However, as a non native speaker, I always suspect that I might be asking a most obvious question which isn't worth asking the community. In such situations what research do I have to do before posting questions about etymology and how can I convince the community that I have done enough research but I'm still having difficulty understanding the etymology or grasping the meaning?

2 Answers 2


How can I convince the community that I have done enough research?

I would say the answer is: do your research, and then share your research.

As an example, let's take the idiom "broken record" (as in, "You sound like a broken record."). Anyone old enough to have started their music collection with vinyl will know what this means; anyone young enough to have never owned a cassette tape might wonder, "What do broken Olympic records have to do with sounding repetitious?"

There are at least four resources I would use to research an idiom like this:

(1) I'd use OneLook.com, which links to several online dictionaries, and accepts idioms and phrases. If you type "broken record" into OneLook.com, you'll get three matches, including one to the Urban Dictionary, which explains the idiom rather well.

(2) I'd use etymolonline.com, which traces origins of words. (This site doesn't always work so well for phrases; entering broken record into its search box yields five pages of results, some referring to "phonographs", but little insight into the idiom in question.)

(3) I'd use the Phrase Finder, which works better for idioms. Searching broken record at the Phrase Finder yields this pertinent gem:

"like a broken record" means the person says the same thing over and over. When a record was scratched or broken, it would hang up and play a segment over and over.

(4) I'd use Google, starting the query with "meaning of". Typing meaning of broken record returns several links, including a link to UsingEnglish.com, which explains: When someone sounds like a broken record, they keep on repeating the same things. ("Stuck record" is also used). This tells you the meaning of the phrase (which you already knew), but it does not provide an etymological source, so it doesn't answer your question.

After visiting these four sites, you really don't need to ask this question on ELU, because the entry at the Urban Dictionary (found via OneLook) explains it rather well:

Derives directly from the (slightly inaccurate) term involving polyvinyl record albums, where such a "broken" record would repeatedly skip back a moment in what being played. (The term was inaccurate – usually such skippage was caused by debris on the disc.)

However, to answer your question, let's assume that you typed sounds like a broken record into the search box at OneLook, and you didn't check Phrase Finder. OneLook doesn't find anything:

Sorry, no dictionaries indexed in the selected category contain the exact phrase sounds like a broken record.

Now, you don't have the answer to your question. You could ask your question like this, but I'd not recommend doing so:

Origin of "sounds like a broken record"
Where does this phrase come from? I tried looking online, but I couldn't find an answer.

What's wrong with that question?

  • It doesn't explain why you are confused, or why this is relevant. (Explaining this information often makes a question seem more appealing to the community at large.)
  • It doesn't reveal what kind of research you did (meaning that several ELU users could be doomed to make the same unfruitful queries you did). Moreover, even if you did some earnest research, it's hard for anyone to see that based on the information in your question (remember, all we have to go on is what you put into the question).

If it were me, I'd compose the question like this instead:

Origin of "sounds like a broken record"
I understand that the phrase "sounds like a broken record" means saying the same thing over and over; after using Google, I found that definition at UsingEnglish.com, which says:

  • When someone sounds like a broken record, they keep on repeating the same things. ('Stuck record' is also used.)

However, I'm confused about the origin of this phrase. When I hear the phrase "broken record," it reminds me of Michael Phelps at the Olympics. Is it because a record-breaking athlete keeps taking the podium over and over again?

I searched for "sounds like a broken record" on both OneLook and etymolonline, but OneLook returned no hits, and etymolonine had several hits, but none talked about the meaning of this phrase.

Now, it would be hard for anyone to accuse you of not doing research (you mention four sites by name; you included a link to one, and you described the results of two other searches). Moreover, you've done a good job explaining why you're confused about the idiom.

My guess is that a question in the first format would draw comments asking "What research did you do?" along with some downvotes, but a question in the second format would get answered. It still might get closed as "general reference" (after all, the answer is readily available, by typing "broken record" instead of "sounds like a broken record"), but it's still evident that you gave it a college try, and most users here would appreciate the work you put into the question. Therefore, comments would likely be much more supportive and less accusatory.

In short, I think if you make an earnest, heartfelt effort to answer your own question first, and then do a good job of explicitly describing what you did within your question itself, then the community will be convinced you have done enough research.

Of course, this means you might ask fewer questions, because you'll be able to answer several of them before you ask. That's not a bad thing.

  • 1
    +1 but it's a shame you've had to tell all this twice to the same user.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Dec 27, 2012 at 12:21
  • 1
    @Andrew: It's a different kind of question, I didn't mind leaving a slightly different answer. I took it as a follow-on question of sorts. (Plus, I'm thinking about combining both of those answers into a blog post.)
    – J.R.
    Dec 27, 2012 at 16:18

For example, you can search in online dictionaries.

If you link them, and someone sees that nothing valuable comes out after searching themselves, we'll obviously believe you searched there because you're giving to us the same tool and we can't find anything.

You can try reading on Wikipedia. If you don't find it, mention it, and if you find it and something doesn't satisfy you about it, mention it. Mention any site/resource you searched and possibly link it.

Saying "I searched everywhere" is not proving anything to us.

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