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etymology (ĕtĭmŏlˈəjē), branch of linguistics that investigates the history, development, and origin of words. It was this study that chiefly revealed the regular relations of sounds in the Indo-European languages (as described in Grimm's law) and led to the historical investigation of language in the 19th cent. In the 20th cent. linguists continued to use etymology to learn how meanings change, but they came to consider that the meaning of a form at a given time must be understood without reference to its history if it is to be understood at all. The term etymology has been replaced by the term derivation for the creation of combinations in a language, such as new nouns formed with the ending -ness. See grammar; dictionary.
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inquiry into and accounts of sources and development of words. In modern linguistics, a distinction is drawn between the diachronic study of language (etymology), and its synchronic study (structural analysis) (see SYNCHRONIC AND DIACHRONIC). Etymology 's concern is with the origins and changes in meaning of particular words, and also with the historical ancestry of groups or ‘families’ of languages, e.g. Indo-European, Amerindian, etc.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the branch of linguistics that investigates the origins of words, their original structures, and their semantic relationships.

The term “etymology” was introduced more than 2,000 years ago by the classical philosophers. In the broad sense, etymology is the reconstruction of the phonetic and derivational elements of a word. In addition to demonstrating relationships between sounds and identifying identical morphemes, it accounts for the selection of morpheme combinations in specific derivational patterns. The term “etymology” is also applied to an account of the derivation of a word.

Characterized by a multiplicity of possible solutions, etymological study makes extensive use of hypothesis and seldom arrives at definitive results. Etymology is a special case of the explanatory sciences, whose constructs, unlike those of the descriptive sciences, are markedly hypothetical in nature.

The basis for etymological research is provided by comparative-historical linguistics. Consequently, etymology has proved most successful in dealing with the languages that have undergone the most extensive comparative-historical study—for example, the Indo-European and Finno-Ugric languages. Cases of secondary etymological interpretation or the linking of words that do not come from the same source are called folk, or false, etymologies.


Pisani, V. Etimologiia. Moscow, 1956. (Translated from Italian.)
Toporov, V. N. “O nekotorykh teoreticheskikh osnovaniiakh etimologicheskogo analiza.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1960, no. 3.
Trubachev, O. N. “Zadacha etimologicheskikh issledovanii v oblasti slavianskikh iazykov.” Kratkie soobshcheniia lnstituta slavianovedeniia AN SSSR, 1961, issues 33–34.
Etymologic Edited by R. Schmitt. Darmstadt, 1977.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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