This ELU answer corroborates the helpfulness of etymology while heeding the Etymological Fallacy. Since I'm interested in French (which is derived from Latin), I can sometimes apply it to help myself 'drift' into Latin, and so to ♦tolerate English etymology containing Latin.

Yet whenever an etymology concerns an obscure language (Please advise what is the right language family ?), then I'm adrift and awry. Few can master all these antiquated dialects, but knowledge of its modern variety does help (as attested by Old French vs 2015 French and French in Shakespeare). So how do you understand such etymologies?

Must I learn these languages, at least elementarily? This Quora answer advises so, but learning Ancient Greek, Dutch, German, and Latin all from scratch may consume too much time. What do linguisticians or etymologists do?
I hate to memorise mindlessly or succumb to foreign words.

♦Footnote: I purposely use 'tolerate', and NOT 'understand', because I don't know Latin.

  • 1
    I don't understand your question. What specifically do you mean by "understand" an etymology? Are you asking about believing in an etymology, or remembering one? "Etymology" usually looks for the earliest written linguistic form that a word derives from, so that usually stops with Old English for Germanic words.
    – user6726
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 17:26
  • @user6726 I ask about '[the process of] believing in an etymology, or remembering one.' About the former, I can tolerate the etymology but with these old dialects, I can only resign to memorising what is claimed as the etymology; so I lack the means to believe or disbelieve in them. About remembrance, yes, I ask about this well. Does this clarify? Please write any time; I'm unversed in linguistics and so appreciate help to refine my questions.
    – user5306
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 18:31
  • Note to self: George William Lemon also endorsed the importance of etymology: books.google.com/…
    – user5306
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 19:36
  • As far as English words are concerned etymonline.com gives you all etymological information. This etymological dictionary is a compilation of several renowned etymological dictionaries. etymonline.com
    – rogermue
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 2:58

1 Answer 1


It is definitely a question of trust, unless you are an author of etymological dictionaries yourself. Your language has lots of words, and you need to know the etymologes of some of them, so for each of those words you start to "grow" their history in your mind, their earlier forms, more earlier forms, and so on back in time up to the earlieast proto-forms of them you can learn of. This is a part of learning your own language, although it will definitely give you some knowledge of the languages that came into contact with yours. Everybody comes through this (in this or that form), you should not be concerned about that, it is never late to learn, and you can never learn too much. ;)

  • 2
    Many entries in etymological dictionaries are hypotheses anyway, often no definite proof exists as to how a word was formed or how it acquired a certain meaning, often multiple competing hypotheses are listed. Sometimes, the truth is a combination of explanations. Sometimes a word changes as a result of a presumed incorrect etymology. Etymology is as volatile as language itself. Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 15:00

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