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Not to be confused with entomology.

Etymology is the study of the origins of words, and how their form and meanings change or develop over time. It is related to historical linguistics, but refers to the history of specific words or phrases, while the study of word origins in linguistics usually involves the identification of more general patterns which tell us something about how whole sets of vocabulary or grammatical structures have emerged, and thus how a language or language family has reached its present form. Etymology is also closely related to lexicography, i.e. the compiling of dictionaries, because the history of a word can give important clues to its meaning, description and prescribed use.

To take an example, consider the English word nice. Etymologically, the meaning of that particular word has changed a great deal over the centuries. While today it means 'pleasant' (and possibly a little bland), in Middle English it meant 'stupid', and before that, as the Latin nescius, the meaning was 'ignorant'.[1] Etymologists would be interested in how and why these changes took place. To a linguist, however, these developments are important only in so far that they provide evidence of general tendencies in language change, e.g. that meanings drift in certain ways and that words do not remain 'fixed' in their meaning. Since the changes in the meaning of nice are not 'predictable', i.e. it is difficult to discern a pattern that could be used to devise hypotheses about changes elsewhere in English, in other languages or the system of language as a whole, the story of this word would be of limited use in linguistic analysis. To an etymologist, on the other hand, this is an important example in the context of the history of the English language, one which illustrates something of the culture in which the word is employed and the attitudes of speakers.


  1. Oxford English Dictionary: 'nice, adj. and adv.'. Accessed 9th March 2015.