Definition of Etymology

Etymology means to find the roots of a word. It is mostly used as a noun, etymology, with its adjective, etymological. As such as it is not a regular literary device; rather, it is a linguistic term and is mostly concerned with the roots, history, evolution, and usage of the words with their semantic implications used during different periods of history.

As a linguistic term or device, it means the investigation of a word and its meanings through history. The reason is that every word has a unique origin, root, history, evolutionary meanings, and above all its topical usage. Therefore, etymology provides full details about the history of the word and its possible usage to provide a guideline for its future usage. In this respect, etymology is not a literary device.

Examples of Etymology in Literature

Example # 1

Word Origin and How We Know Them by Anatoly Liberman

The etymology of breakfast is slightly less trivial than that of Sunday and holiday. (Holiday and breakfast, from brekefast, were trisyllabic words, and in such words the first vowel was shortened; this explains their modern pronunciation.)

This passage occurs in the popular book of Anatoly Liberman. It presents the word etymology and states how it works. Although the passage just traces the origin of breakfast, it demonstrates the effectiveness of this term in explaining the meanings of a word.

Example #2

The Oxford Guide to Etymology by Philip Durkin

Etymology forms part of the wider field of historical linguistic research, that is to say of attempts to explain how and why languages have changed and developed in the ways that they have. However, it does not concern itself exclusively with a particular linguistic level, as does for instance historical phonology (the study of speech sounds and of their deployment in ways which convey distinct meaning), historical morphology (the study of word forms as used to convey grammatical relationships), historical semantics (the study of the meaning of words), or historical syntax (the study of the meaning relations between words within a sentence).

This passage explains the full detail of etymology. It tells that this term is mostly used in historical linguistics and that it explains how language changes over time. The passage also presents different aspects of this study and explains how meanings of a word are unearthed through different investigations. In other words, this passage proves that etymology is not just a term, but a full study.

Example #3

Etymology by Yakov Malkiel

In different times and at different places, etymology has meant slightly for entirely different things to the few or many people who, under varying sets of circumstances, have used that word, applying it to their own spheres of interests. Basically, etymology always meant something approximating to the paraphrase ‘original meaning, or use, of a given lexical unit or proper name.’ But the cultural implications of this lame descriptive statement can be entirely different. The core meaning of a word can be imagined as something wholly independent of the passage of time and endowed with magic messages or mystic overtones.

Yakov Malkiel has beautifully shed light on the use of etymology and how it shows its transformations. He is of the view that different people have used etymology for different purposes that suit their interests., and adds that it originally means to do “approximating paraphrasing” that is close to the original meanings. He also sheds light on its core adding that it helps in formulating magic or mystic overtones.

Example #4

Dictionary of English Etymology, Volume 1 by Hensleigh Wedgwood (M.A.)

Etymology is still at the stage where an arbitrary theory is accepted as the basis of scientific explanation. It is supposed that all language is developed from roots or skeletons of articulate sound, endowed with distinct and often very abstract meaning, but incapable of being actually used in speech, until properly clothed in grammatical forms.

Hensleigh Wedgwood has beautifully shed light on the word etymology, placing it in the theoretical perspective. He is of the view that it means that language evolves by giving good meanings to merely skeletons that have nothing but become overloaded with meanings with used judiciously.

Example #5

Forgotten Paths: Etymology and the Allegorical Mindset by Davide Del Bello

Contours are not quite so sharp if one looks at the role etymology is granted today. To be sure, the number of current books involving “word origin” – collections, dictionaries, lexicons – would seem to indicate that etymology thrives. And such lasting popular interest in etymology reflects an ongoing interest on the part of lecturers, critics, writers, lawyers, historians, and politicians, who consistently refer to etymology to further their claims. Etymologizing is bound to feature prominently whenever definitions are at stake; not only, but also, and more vehemently – in scientific, legal, and political arenas.

Davide De Bello beautifully presents the case of etymology, stating that several books are involved in dilating upon etymology and that it has aroused the interest of academics. In fact, it is because it has rather become a full epistemic driving for the people after which learning about it has widened. In other words, it has become a field but its use as a rhetorical device has become limited.

Functions of Etymology

Despite its limited function in literary texts, etymology helps the readers a great deal in understanding the true meanings of different words. Readers apply different etymological strategies to reach the message that authors convey in their literary pieces. Interestingly, no writer consciously employs etymology as its constant application not only mars the very purpose of writing but also makes it boring and tedious. A reader needs flow and suspense that is hard to come by with the excessive use of etymology. Therefore, it is only used when the context is suitable.


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