Etymology is a fancy word for the study of the origin of words. A word’s history; its background.

Maybe you’ve stumbled upon the hashtag #WordFactFriday on our Instagram page. If so, thanks for following us! If not, shame on you and get your butt to our account ludejoloveslanguage and click ‘follow’. 

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Word Fact Friday

WordFactFriday was brought to life by our marketing manager, Andrew Hickson. Every Friday, he highlights a special word or an interesting expression. You know, just because he enjoys looking into a word or expression’s history and because it’s a fun way to start the weekend (what can we say, while some may start their weekend with a beer of glass of rosé, others prefer investigating the etymology of the word ‘petrichor’). Etymology, by the way, is a fancy word for the study of the origin of words. A word’s history, its background. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are plenty of people who find this branch of linguistics very interesting (and I promise they aren’t all language geeks like me).

Did you know etymology can be very useful for translators? 

Languages don’t just drop from the sky all finished and ready to use (just imagine, ‘ta-da, here’s a book of French words and grammar, have fun!’) Linguists often refer to the term language evolution: words’ meanings are always changing, new words and expressions are added to a language (just think of ‘freegan’, ‘awesomesauce’ and ‘manspreading’), words stop being used, and words are borrowed from other languages. It’s quite strange how we refer to that last action as ‘borrowing’, since we don’t give the words back to whatever language we took them from. 

“Borrowing” from the French

We’ve ‘borrowed’ a whole bunch of French words over the past few centuries. For example, the English word ‘mutton’ is derived from the French ‘mouton’. Of course, the English could’ve just opted for ‘sheep meat’, but that was deemed too peasant-like: After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French was considered to be the pinnacle of sophistication. As a result, countless French words were adopted by the English language, since the rich were trying to impress one another by using as many French words and expressions as humanly possible (if you’re interested in finding out more about the French influence on the English language, check out this episode of the audio series Word of Mouth on BBC Radio 4’s website). 

In any case, these etymological facts can be a very useful tool for translators. Having more information about the connection between English and French may make it easier to derive the meaning of words and expressions. By way of illustration: I’m no native speaker of French, but I do understand what ‘bouillon’, ‘abominable’, ‘buffet’ and ‘lotion’ mean because we ‘borrowed’ these words from the French language. 

In addition, these facts can be a fun way to impress others during dinner parties.

If you’re interested in etymology (not on an academic level, just for fun), I can recommend the Twitter account @UselessEty. Jess Zafarris, the author of the word-origin dictionary for children, Once Upon a Word, posts fun and interesting etymology-related facts on this account. 

Finally, being the language geek that I am, I’d like to point out the etymology of etymology. Etymology derives from the Greek étumologiá, which is a combination of étumon (the true sense/meaning) and logos (the study of). Pretty cool, right?

Is there another word or expression you’d like to know more about? Comment it below and maybe we’ll post it on our Instagram page as WordFactFriday!