Etymological Tools

What are the various tools and methods for finding and validating the origins of words and phrases? Where can one go to find information and common mechanisms of word and phrase formation.

Standards of Evidence

By far, the most common methodological error I find that amateur word sleuths make regards standards of evidence. Someone comes up with a hypothesis that sounds plausible, but fails to back it up with any evidence. Explanations for words or phrases like the whole nine yards are interesting, but without actual evidence to support them they cannot be considered correct.

The gold standard for etymological evidence is a citation of usage. You must find a written instance of the word being used that is both earlier than any other known usage and that supports the hypothesis. If for instance you want to prove that the whole nine yards is a reference to the length of a formal Scottish kilt, you need to find someone using the phrase prior to the mid-1960s in reference to kilts, or since all the early known uses are American, at least from a Scottish source.

Of course this provides a bias toward written works and against oral traditions, but this is unavoidable even if we include letters, diaries, and other unpublished works. Oral traditions simply don’t survive intact. Even words and phrases that arose within living memory need written documentation because memory is malleable and subject to change.

The best research tools are those that include citations of usage. Dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary, The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and the Dictionary of American Regional English all include verifiable examples of usage through the decades and centuries.

Types of Tools

Standard Dictionaries

The most common and useful etymological tool is a standard dictionary. Most good dictionaries include etymological information about the entries. Usually, this can be found at the beginning of the entry, immediately following the pronunciation and part of speech classification. The exact format and abbreviations used will vary from dictionary to dictionary. For example:

IN-FAN-TRY \’inf&n-trE, -ri\ n -ES [MF & OIt; MF infanterie, fr. OIt infanteria, fr. infante infant, boy, footman, foot soldier (fr. L infant-, infans infant) + -eria -ry—more at INFANT] 1a: soldiers trained, armed, and equipped to fight on foot b: a branch of the army composed of such soldiers c: an infantry regiment (the 8th Infantry ) d: MOONLIGHT BLUE 2: [influenced in meaning by 1infant] a body of children

So, in this entry (taken from Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), we first find the entry, the word infantry, which is followed by the pronunciation, the classification of the part of speech—in this case a noun, the plural form, and then the etymology. The etymology is then followed by the definitions, in this case there are two main senses, with the first sense having four sub-categories. The order of the components of the entry and the abbreviations used will vary from dictionary to dictionary. Look in the front of the dictionary to find the style and abbreviations used by that particular set of editors.

So, we can see that infantry comes into English from the Middle French infanterie, which in turn comes from the Old Italian infanteria. This Old Italian military term comes from the word infante, which can mean a foot soldier in addition to the sense of a baby. This Old Italian word derives from the Latin root infant- or infans. Finally the dictionary tells us that there is more information to be found under the entry for infant.

Etymological Dictionaries

An etymological dictionary is simply one that focuses on the etymological portion of the entry. It will include more details on the origins, such as the dates when various word forms appeared in the language or extended notes on the origins. This is usually done at the sacrifice of other information. Pronunciations, plural and other forms, and sometimes even definitions are left out.

Slang, Jargon,& Dialectical Dictionaries

These are dictionaries that focus on certain subsets of the language. Their advantage is that they include words and phrases that cannot be found in standard dictionaries because they are not widely used. The chief disadvantage is that they are not comprehensive. A slang dictionary focuses on non-standard words and phrases. A jargon dictionary, often called a technical dictionary by title, concentrates on words used in certain professional or technical fields, such as the sciences or engineering. A regional or dialectical dictionary attempts to capture the language used in one particular region or in one dialect.

Often these dictionaries omit etymological information, concentrating on the definition.

Popular Press Books

Popular press books are simply those that are created for the general reader. The quality of research and the information presented varies widely. Some are complete trash, containing wildly inaccurate information. Others are of superb quality. They tend to focus on slang or “interesting” words and phrases and are rarely useful for most ordinary words (but that is what we have dictionaries for).

The chief drawback of popular press books is that they rarely contain source information. This makes them nearly useless as research tools. It is also difficult to quickly gauge the quality of popular press books. They may have the veneer of sound scholarship, but be filled with inaccuracies that only come to light after extended checking against other sources.

One good way to gauge the quality of a book while you are standing in the bookstore or library is to have a standard set of words to check. Ones I often use are posh, wog, and the whole nine yards. Using these known words and phrases, you can quickly evaluate the accuracy, quantity, and presentation of the information.

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