Would you please recommend etymology dictionaries for English that MUST be available online (either for free or purchase), BUT subject to the following conditions?

1. Many of the recommendations in this Ask Metafilter post don't seem to be online.

2. If possible, the dictionary ought to trace back to and discusses the proto-language root
(ie Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Germanic).

I have already tried and used, and so please exclude:

3. the OED. It's either too brusque or fails to explain the connections between words.

4. Etymonline.com. It also sometimes fails to explain the connections between words.

5. Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology; it's even brusquer than Etymonline.

In answer to user 'Robert' below, I exemplify a word unexplained fully by the resources above. Please do NOT answer to 'rogation' here (I can post anew if necessary); this thread is reserved for the content above the line separator.

OED fails to trace back far enough; it omits the PIE root. Etymonline does state the PIE root, but it doesn't connect or explain or reveal the (gaps in the) evolution of meanings.

rogare "to ask,"   ...    "to stretch out (the hand)  ...
PIE * rog-, 0-grade form of root * reg- "move in a straight line" (see regal) ...

  • 2
    You're not going to be satisfied with dictionaries unless you learn some historical linguistics to interpret them. Trask's book is a very good start.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 22:53
  • Could you give an example of an entry from, say, the OED, and explain in more detail what you feel is missing? Because at the moment I don't really understand what specifically you find lacking in these sources. And some of them are quite good as judged by their reputation among English linguists.
    – robert
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 12:20
  • @robert Yes, of course. Please just allow me a few days to find an example. I'll reply to you once I cite one.
    – user5306
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:37
  • @jlawler Thank you for the advice. I assume you mean amazon.com/Trasks-Historical-Linguistics-Larry-Trask/dp/…. Would you know of other such introductory, readable books that exemplify with English and French mostly? This review mentions the emphasis on examples from Basque, which I don't plan to learn for now (English and French confuse me enough already).
    – user5306
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 16:40
  • 3
    Historical linguistics deals with any language in any period. It has to. You seem to want to learn as little as possible in order to understand etymologies. That's not a successful strategy. You need to have a massive understanding of history and culture, because the changes you're interested in are results of unpredictable combinations of events and people. Trask and Buck is a good start. The Crystal Cambridge Encyclopedias are also good (of Language, and of the English Language). There's quite a lot of historical language in all of them.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 21:55

2 Answers 2


It is possible the OED version online is abridged. I think I read something of the sort on the website, but unfortunately I can't access it any more via your link (though I could at first, strange...). If it is indeed the unabridged version, I dare say it will be difficult for you to find more extensive commentaries.

The fact that you found a PIE root mentioned under a certain entry in dictionary A but not B could of course mean that dictionary B erroneously omitted a widely accepted etymology for this word. But it could also mean, and I think this is the more likely explanation, that B's editors omitted it because they thought the evidence is not sufficient to include this etymology/reconstruction.

You also asked for literature that "connects or explains ... the evolution of meanings". I am afraid it might be difficult to find such literature for a wide range of words. Etymological dictionaries are concise in the information they offer because it is expected that readers will know common sound laws and other developments that will fill many of the "gaps" you mentioned. It's not as if every reader will go away with all questions answered, but most of them are. What is available in terms of more extensive literature on specific words will mostly be unsatisfactory because the discussions will be quite specialised.

My recommendation is, similar to jlawler's, that you read a good textbook, such as Baugh & Cable's The History of the English Language. In addition to this, or if your interest very narrowly focusses on sound change, you might want to read what Wikipedia has to say on sound laws. Verner's law and Grimm's law are particularly well known.

If you pursue any of this, it will lead you a bit away from looking at specific words and their reconstructed history. Instead, you'll get the larger picture of how languages develop and change. It's a bit like the difference between learning how many electrons there are in an iron atom, and what that actually means for the chemical reactions that iron can be involved in. I'm not saying that looking at specific words and their histories is wrong, but it can only get you so far, and it's possible you have exhausted this avenue.


It seems that you're really more interested in reconstructions than more meaningful and evidence-based etymologies. Maybe, you would find this English-PIE translator useful: http://indo-european.info/dictionary-translator.

You can also find some info here: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/ielex/.

But the key thing to remember is that those PIE *etymologies are not attested forms with direct lines of descent. They are hypothetical constructs based on similar words in distinct languages related through known processes of linguistic change (previously called 'laws'). They are not on the same level of reliability as the more immediate ancestors with actual examples of use.

The reconstructions cannot by themselves illuminate the meanings or journeys of individual words unless you contrast the descendants in several languages. Even then, this remains little more than a curiosity outside of a very specialist discipline of comparative historical linguistics.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.