Whenever I post a question on the origin of a common expression or on the etymology of a word (something I often do, sorry for that) I regularly receive a fair amount of criticism about their "unproductiveness".

For some reason, most users don't like this sort of question and are just happy with the information offered by Etymonline.

Actually, digging deeper, it is sometime possible to shed more light on issues which are not yet available on common online references.

So, what about creating a separate section where etymological questions don't interfere with other language activities and users are not annoyed by their presence?

  • 8
    I'd say "some" users, rather than "most" just because the same old users complain doesn't mean the majority of users agree.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 9:21
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    @Mari-LouA I may be wrong, but my impression is that etymological questions are not generally well received. The fact that they require research, often a fair amount of research, may make them unpopular.
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 9:28
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    How would you propose that a separate section be implemented? it sounds like a new Area51 proposal.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 9:31
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    Only users who are interested in a word's history will take the time to look it up, but there's no obligation for anyone to do the same. I don't think that is the reason, it's probably linked to the fact that sometimes it is impossible to say "when" a phrase or word was first used, and very often a phrase/idiom etc. is a variation on an older expression, so it's a bit like going down the garden path. I LIKE most Etymology questions.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 9:32
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    I'd say there are many more users who "hate" SWR than there are Etymological ones, but they are both popular questions as can be seen by the upvotes. It's more problematic to close an Ety question than a SWR if the OP has first done some research on their own.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 9:42
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    A 'separate section'? There is no feasible tech to do what you want within ELU. You could try to create an Area51 proposal but I doubt that would be successful (not enough market). There already exists tags which could suffice, but no one cares (the 'etymology' tag already exists which you could use but nobody uses tags for a 'subsystem' like you ask for). I suggest behavioral encouragement: use the tag, edit questions to ask for 'beyond what is in etymonline', 'allow more speculative answers'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 13:43
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    There are many highly upvoted etymology questions. I enjoy them. I must not be paying enough attention, not having noticed push-back. Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 13:57
  • @Josh61 I love most of your questions. They're food for thought. Keep it up.
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Mar 19, 2016 at 10:57
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    The problem is that about half the etymology questions fall into one of two categories: 1) What is the etymology of "cat"? Who was the first person to ever say that word? 2) What is the etymology of "bake until done"? Why is it not "bake while not done"? An etymology questioner should understand that many words were "invented" before there were lexicographers, and many phrases are just people speaking normally. A good question is one that is either intriguing in its own right or which serves some well-stated purpose (eg understanding an old text). Have mercy on the poor lexicographer.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 0:01
  • @HotLicks - if you are just fine with the general answer to all possible etimological question that "it is because that the way people use it", I am not. "The way people use words or phrases is not random, or just invented. There are trends, patterns and influences that determine the way we use words and phrases. Looking for their origin means digging into their usage in the past. The problem is that it is not always possible to come to a clear conclusion, but, I do think, it is worth looking for it. I can understand that you consider all this a "waste of time", but that is your personal idea
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 9:55
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    @Josh61 - The point is that the origin of "cat" can be looked up in a reference, with far better results than relying on a bunch of Internet nerds (unless you're simply lazy and hoping they will do the looking up for you). But, more to the point, there is no point in these questions. It's as if Opie simply decided "I think I'll ask a stupid etymology question on EL&U", vs encountering the term somewhere and wondering how the etymology might affect it's understanding and use (and telling us of the nature of the encounter, to pique our interest).
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 12:41
  • @HotLicks - as in this case? just a dictionary entry away? .english.stackexchange.com/questions/311647/…
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 14:09
  • @HotLicks: I agree with you about there being many such misguided etymology questions. Silly or useless as they might be, what's wrong with just ignoring them or down-voting them? And there can be an occasional gem that would never have occurred to me to wonder about, but which might well be posed by someone who didn't bother to try to find an answer beyond asking here. A well-researched Q is great, even when it is not so interesting or thought-provoking. But a Q can sometimes be interesting - and fruitful - even if the OP has not researched it.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 3:30

6 Answers 6


Looking at your profile, it seems to me that the majority of your questions tagged with "etymology" have been received well votes-wise. I also did not find any that were closed. So I'll assume you're talking about comments.

It's unfortunate that some people don't see the value of these questions, but it looks like most people have found them useful and on-topic. So you shouldn't be reluctant to ask more of them on this site. As long as you tag them "etymology," users who hate etymology can put that tag on their "ignore list", which can be configured to either gray out questions with the tag, or hide them entirely. I really don't think we need a new, separate section of the site beyond that.


I love questions about etymology (in the sense of the origin and evolution of words and phrases) because, often, researching them yields such surprising and rewarding results. In my experience, a well-researched answer to an etymology question on English Language & Usage is likely to be considerably richer and deeper than the more narrowly focused answers that Etymology Online provides. This isn't a knock on Etymonline; it's an acknowledgment that space restrictions require that resource to take a narrow view of what identifying the etymology of a word or phrase means.

In contrast, EL&U can accommodate multiple instances of early occurrences of a word or phrase, along with discussions of the context of these occurrences, and coverage of evolving meanings (if any). Taken together, these components of an answer can help make it a legitimate original contribution to popular understanding of the origin of a word or phrase.

The problem is that some linguists and language enthusiasts seem to think that etymology is properly limited to identifying the root words of—or the progression through other languages of the antecedents of—the word or phrase in question. For them, Etymonline's coverage resolves the question of etymology insofar as etymology is on-topic at EL&U. Hence the frequent comment made to posters of etymology questions, "Did you check at Etymonline? What did you find?"—as though that site's coverage were conclusive and exhaustive.

I take a different and much broader view of what "etymology" encompasses. Since we don't have tags at EL&U for "word origin" and "phrase origin," questions that inquire more broadly into the circumstances surrounding the emergence of a word or phrase into its modern sense in English tend to use the "etymology" tag, though they may seek information about early occurrences and early meanings of the word or phrase, in addition to its etymological derivation, narrowly understood. In effect, they are requesting the kind of early usage coverage that the full OED provides in its historical citations for a word—and today, happily, inquiries into such examples often turn up earlier occurrences than the print OED has recorded because they can take advantage of searches of digital libraries.

For inquiries of this type, Etymonline is merely a starting point. I would welcome any question about etymology (in the broad sense) that began by saying, "Etymology Online reports that word [or phrase] X comes from bar-bar-bar-bar. What (if any) significant information about the etymology [or origin or emergence into mainstream English] of this word [or phrase] does Etymonline's account omit?"

I do not favor trying to sequester questions of this type in a special reserved area of EL&U. To the contrary, I think that such questions should remain integrated in the core of EL&U, not least because I think that they produce some of the most useful contributions that EL&U makes toward broadening public knowledge of matters of English language and usage. What I would urge is that site participants who currently take a narrow view of the proper scope of "etymology" consider adopting (or at least accepting as legitimate) a broader notion of what that term etymology encompasses on this site, and try to take a more welcoming (or at least tolerant) attitude toward questions and answers premised on that broader interpretation.

  • "...I think that they produce some of the most useful contributions that EL&U makes toward broadening public knowledge of matters of English language and usage." This is the point, and the criticism that these questions (not the answers) regularly receive make me think that there are regular users who disagree on the useful role of the origin of terms/expressions on ELU. A dedicated area might be an appropriate solution in my view.
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 20:05
  • @Josh61: No one will be sadder than me if the "half your age plus seven" Q&A that JEL mentions in a separate answer here gets deleted. But I think that EL&U need to be more receptive to a big-tent interpretation of English language and usage. Fracturing the site's coverage into principalities dedicated to single-word requests, etymology, ESL-level grammar questions (as was done with what has become ELL), etc., will only increase the confusion of casual (i.e., most) site visitors—and increase the administrative overhead involved in rerouting questions to their proper destinations, I think. ...
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 21:35
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    ...Someone noted recently that, if 5 million EL&U voters had vote-to-close privileges, every question on the site would be closed within 12 hours. It's an exaggeration, of course, but it contains an important kernel of truth: As more and more site users become close-vote eligible, it becomes easier and easier for people who have a narrow (or purist) notion of EL&U's proper jurisdiction to scare up the necessary votes to close questions, at least temporarily. But in my view the answer isn't secession, it's greater site-wide tolerance for Q&A's that some participants love and others don't.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 21:43

I am reminded that exasperation recently led me to the same thought, to wit, that the controversy over phrase etymology questions might be best resolved by a special section of ELU, or a new area (as suggested by Mitch in the answers here). My exasperation was inspired by the comments on, and inconsistent treatment of, two questions:

  1. Etymology of the “half your age, plus seven” phrase? (Feb. 16, 2016)

  2. What's the story behind “read my lips”? (Feb. 18, 2016)

I won't color the controversy with the details of my trivial outrage, other than to say (as I mentioned in the comments on question 1) that such questions, if well-formed and adequately researched, should not be close-voted as off-topic. The whole of the controversy seems to be embedded in the comments on question 1, which was closed, reopened and closed again, and which now has 1 delete vote. Yet question 2, which is not notably dissimilar, has no close votes.

My point here is that the prejudice against 'etymology' questions, especially as concerns phrase origins, does undoubtedly exist. It seems, however, to be especially virulent when directed at questions from comparatively low-scoring participants. For that reason, the prejudice is even more annoying than it would be if applied to all phrase origin questions indiscriminately.

  • Thanks for recognizing that the issue is a real one, but you appear to be calling for close voting also the second question.
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 8:43
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    @Josh61, that's not my intention at all. Neither of those questions should be close-voted, much less deleted.
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 21, 2016 at 8:45
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    I still get annoyed every time I come across the "Etymology of the 'half your age, plus seven' phrase?" question and see that it remains closed. Fortunately, I don't come across it all that often.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 22:46

A 'separate section'?

There is no feasible tech to do what you want within ELU.

There are alternatives that go in the direction that you want but I fear will not be satisfactory.

  • You could try to create an Area51 proposal but I doubt that would be successful; I don't think there's enough market and people wouwld just say 'ask at ELU already.'
  • There already exists tags which could suffice, but no one cares. The 'etymology' tag already exists which you could use but nobody uses tags for a 'subsystem' like you ask for.

I suggest behavioral encouragement whenever you see an etymology question: use the tag, edit questions to ask for 'beyond what is in etymonline', 'allow more speculative answers'.

Of course the etymology question has to not be closable. If what is sought is beyond etymonline, then it should be quoted, and then asked for further info.

  • 3
    Well, people can hide questions with tags on their "ignored tags" list: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/23811/…
    – herisson
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 14:36
  • It is a pity that it is not feasible from a technical perspective.
    – user66974
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 14:47
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    @Josh61 depends on what you mean by feasible. If you mean 'a similar closed system like ELU, or Writers, or Math for Educators, but just for etymology' that's very feasible by my pt 1. If you mean 'within ELU' you can do it already using tags. But you didn't specify what you really mean by a 'separate section'. I interpret that as a special viewable subsection within ELU. Tags can get you something like that (my pt #2) but it is still a part of ELU. I'm not sure what features about this special section you want.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 16:40
  • @sumelic Yes, questions with particular tags can be hidden. But I think Josh61 wants an 'only show' whitelist for etymologies (my pt 2). But it'll have the same close reasons and people closing it that ELU has.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 16:42

I started looking through your posts - just yours with the etymology tag - but stopped when I realised the search produced 25 pages (!) of results. After going through maybe 10 questions, I found a single possibly negative comment, and many constructive ones.

Even the negative comments I recall on the subject (not necessarily related to your posts) objected to using etymology to define current usage, not to whether etymology was on-topic for the site.

In any case, etymology is firmly part of ELU, all the way back to its tour page:

English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

I don't see the need to segregate questions about etymology from ELU's core. Labelling them with the tag is sufficient.


This answer is to preserve some comments from a relevant comment-thread discussion from a meta question that was about to be deleted. The thesis is highlighted below (emphasis, mine).

I think that Aynonomus is correct in suggesting that most purely etymological questions asked at this site are closed as general reference/lack of research, with a terse recommendation to consult Etymology Online. We have many question that are tagged as 'etymology' but are in fact permitted to remain open because they ask about when the word or phrase was first recorded in a published work. I find it interesting (and inconsistent) that EL&U now has a tag for 'phrase-origin' but still doesn't have one for 'word-origin'; in effect, we use 'etymology' to characterize the latter type of question. – Sven Yargs

@SvenYargs I'm curious, what do you mean by "purely etymological questions"? (I've always understood "etymology" to refer to the origins and history of words, but I assume there is a more technical definition I don't know.) – 1006a

@1006a: I mean the derivation of English words from other languages, as for example this first paragraph from the entry for etymology at Etymology Online: "late 14c., ethimolegia 'facts of the origin and development of a word,' from Old French etimologie, ethimologie (14c., Modern French étymologie), from Latin etymologia, from Greek etymologia 'analysis of a word to find its true origin,' properly 'study of the true sense (of a word),' with - logia 'study of, a speaking of' (see -logy) + etymon ... – Sven Yargs

... 'true sense, original meaning,' neuter of etymos 'true, real, actual,' related to eteos 'true,' which perhaps is cognate with Sanskrit satyah, Gothic sunjis, Old English soð 'true,' from a PIE *set - 'be stable.' Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium." This entire analysis is concerned with tracing the roots of the current English word etymology from other languages, not with identifying when the word came into English. In a subsequent paragraph, the entry suggests a first occurrence date in published English of "mid-15c," but that is a relatively minor aspect of the entry. – Sven Yargs

...My point is that if someone were to post a question at EL&U that asked "What is the etymology of the word etymology? it would almost certainly be closed as general reference/lack of research; but if someone cited the Etymology Online discussion of the word etymology and then asked "What is the earliest known instance of etymology in English?" the question might very well pass muster. (I would try to keep it open, anyway.) I don't know what the scholarly definition of etymology is, but I'm confident that etymology as a study isn't primarily concerned with first occurrence dates. – Sven Yargs

@SvenYargs Ah, I see the distinction. I think to the extent that the term has stretched to include word origins within English, "first instance" questions do occasionally count as etymology—"covfefe" comes to mind as a word coined (or at least turning up like a bad penny) directly in English. But I agree that questions asking about history prior to importation into English are likely to get the cold shoulder, either as general ref or "not about English" or because the pursuit of a word's "true meaning" based on origin is now often called the etymological fallacy rather than etymology. – 1006a

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