Word Traveler: Word origins

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

Do you enjoy reading about the origins of words, their etymologies? These descriptions of the vocabulary of etymology may also interest you.

The underlying meaning of the word etymology is "finding the underlying or true meaning of words" (from Greek etumos "real, true" and etumon "true thing"). Notation is the old term for the explanation of a word on the basis of its etymology; derivation and word history are also synonyms for etymology. The earliest known form of a root word is an etymon, the original or primary meaning of a word.

A root or root word is one of those ultimate elements of a language that cannot be further analyzed - a primary word or form from which others are derived. A word element is any ultimate minimal element of speech having a meaning as such. Many roots are real words in their own right: graph (a diagram) and term (a fixed time or date), for example. Although these roots can have other elements, they don't need other elements to be complete. Most roots, however, do need other elements. Although these roots form words in and of themselves, you can also combine them with other word elements (like prefixes and suffixes) to make new words, as in the following: root arbor and word element eal combine to make arboreal, root vent and word element ilate combine to make ventilate, root audio and word element ible combine to make audible.

A back-formation is a word that is formed from what appears to be its derivative (e.g. edit from editor). Back-formation occurs when speakers of a language assign a regular derivational structure to a word, although a part of this structure, namely the base, did not previously exist. If this new base becomes a word of the language, it is called a back-formation. In other words, you may think that couth came first, but actually it was uncouth first and couth was a back-formation.

A cognate (from Latin cognatus "born together") is a word having the same etymological derivation as another (e.g. English father, German Vater, and Latin pater). The term also refers to genetically related languages descended from the same ancestral root.

Derivation is the process of forming a word from another word or base as by the addition of an affix - specifically a non-inflexional one, either a prefix, suffix, or combining form. A derivative is a word formed in this way, e.g. by the adding of -ial, -able, -ability, -ible to a root.

A diminutive is a word denoting something small or endearing of its kind. There are many words denoting a smaller or affectionate version of an original (e.g. auntie, sonny, starlet). Diminutiveness is sometimes contained in etymologies and is not evident to those using the words (e.g. catkin, originally "little cat"). Examples of diminutives are cigarette from cigar, rivulet from river, and princeling from prince. Diminutives are also formed by the addition of a combining forms like mini-.

Folk etymology is a term for words and phrases that have resulted from changes based on 'folk' or 'popular' notions. A folk etymology arises when a word is assumed to derive from another because of some association of form or meaning, but in fact the word has a different derivation. A great example is asparagus. Asparagus was first called sperage in English in 16th and early 17th centuries and also sperach or sparage. About 1600 the influence of herbalists and horticultural writers made asparagus familiar, in the aphetic form 'sparagus, which by folk etymology was corrupted before 1650 to sparagrass or sparrow-grass, which remained the name during the 18th century. Botanists still wrote asparagus and then during the 19th century, asparagus returned into literary and polite use. There is a slight possibility the word comes from Greek ana "up" and spargan "to swell."

Indo-European is the parent language of English that developed around 4000 BC and evolved into the separate languages now spoken in most of Europe and as far east as northern India. This is the group of languages from which most modern European languages are derived, as well as Sanskrit and Farsi. It is thought that the dispersal of these languages may have occurred through large-scale migrations of people. Attempts have been made to identify the carriers of Indo-European languages with groups recognizable in the archaeological record. A proto-language is a hypothetical parent language from which actual languages or dialects have been derived, e.g. proto-Indo-European, from which the major family developed.

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