Common Errors in Etymology

The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body.

—The Reverend A. Smythe Palmer, Folk-Etymology, 1890

Popular wisdom often adopts tales about the origins of words. Sometimes these tales are correct, but more often they are not. These popular etymologies suffer from several recurring errors.

Superficial Resemblances

“Because two words look the same, they must come from the same source.” This is a very common error. To be fair, many, if not most, similar words are etymologically related, but this is not always the case. In fact, there are so many exceptions to this rule, that it is a very poor guide.

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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.

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Methods of Word Formation

The formation of new words is not a random process. There are several distinct patterns and paths by which new words come into the language. These fall into four major categories, which in turn can be subdivided.

New Root Formation

Root formation is the creation of new words. Roots come from one of three sources: they are inherited from Old English, they are adopted from other languages, or they are coined by an individual to express a particular idea.

Inherited roots are those native to the language, dating back to antiquity. For English, this means roots that are found in Old English. Of all the words in the English language, relatively few (one or two percent) have Old English roots. But this number is deceptive. About half of the most commonly used words are Old English in origin. So the bulk of everyday English speech and writing is rooted in Old English.

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