Etymology – Concept, function, history and examples

We explain what etymology is, its function and its history. Also, examples of the etymology of different words.

Etymology shows how current words come from ancient languages.

What is etymology?

Etymology is a branch of linguistics that deals with the study of the origin of words, as well as its changes throughout the history of the language (its derivation). The etymology of a word gives an account of where it comes from and how it was incorporated into the language, as well as its chronology of changes and adaptations, especially when they come from other languages ​​or from dead languages ​​(generally Latin and ancient Greek).

Modern etymology was born in the 19th century, along with the vision we have of linguistics today, but its roots date back to antiquity herself. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato (c. 427-347 BC) were interested in his works because of the origin of the words of their language, and poets such as Pindar (c. 538-438 BC) or the Roman Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120 AD) created their own fictional etymologies for poetic or playful purposes.

There were also important medieval treatises on the origin of words, such as Isidore of Seville (c. 556-636) and his famous Etymologiae (around the year 630). However, just in modern times an etymological science was constituted, following a scientific, organized and comparative method for its study.

Etymology, in this way, not only satisfies curiosity regarding the origin of a word, that is, where its roots appear and what it originally meant, but also also indicates a chronology or history of the word, which largely reflects the history of the language to which it belongs.

At the same time, moreover, contributes to a fuller understanding of how the language operates, which results in better spelling and a broader vocabulary.

Examples of etymology

A couple of examples of etymological origin are the following:

  • Etymology of “iron”. The ancient Romans knew iron and worked it extensively, calling it ferrum. The short and tonic “e” of Latin, as a general rule, over time in Spanish was replaced by the diphthong “ie”, as in servus (“Servant”) or tempus (“weather”). In that way it was obtained iron, which is the old Hispanic word for this material, still in use in some regions of Spain and Latin America. However, the initial sound of the F in Latin it was not homogeneous, but had many ways of being performed in the vulgar language, one of the most widespread in certain Hispanic regions was the h. Hence, the F and imposing iron as the name of the metal, something similar to what happened with “do” (facer) or with oven (furnus).
  • Etymology of “auction”. This word is the result of the union of two Latin voices: sub (“Under”, “under”) and until (“spear”). In the old days, when a Roman citizen could not pay his debts and his property was seized from him, or goods conquered militarily arrived in the city, these were auctioned to the highest bidder (that is, auctioned), and to indicate that they were in the property of the Roman state, a spear was buried and placed next to it. So these goods were sub up, that is, “under the spear”, and from there the expression that gave rise to the Spanish word “auction” was born.