There are many words whose origin is traced through Middle English and/or French to Latin or Greek, and then it just stops there.

Case in point: the word "etymology" itself:

1350-1400; Middle English < Latin etymologia < Greek etymología, equivalent to etymológ (os) studying the true meanings and values of words ( étymo (s) true (see etymon ) + lógos word, reason) + -ia -y3

So it really means "true reason" (for being, I suppose).

I'm not saying that we should strive to trace everything back to Sanskrit. However, before Greece, there was ancient Egypt.

The Greeks and Egyptians knew each other well from very early on. ("O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are but children!" exclaims an Egyptian in one of Plato's dialogues). It would have only been natural for the inquisitive Greeks to borrow a few dozen words from their more advanced neighbors.

In their heyday, the Greeks documented everything they could, and the Romans documented and indexed everything they got their hands on, and then the medieval monks did a tremendous job preserving a huge portion of it all until finally Johannes Gutenberg invented his proverbial printing press, which quickly resulted in the creation of backup copies of everything pertaining to antiquity.

And yet nowhere in the dictionary do you see a word whose etymology is described as "from Middle English - from Latin - from Greek - from Egyptian."

Now why is that?

  • 6
    Why would everything be able to be traced to Sanskrit anyway? Nov 26, 2015 at 20:00
  • 2
    Considering Sanskrit the closest thing to PIE went out of fashion long ago. Finno-Ugric is not Indo-European, so I'm not sure what "linguists" have managed to work out about it. Nov 26, 2015 at 21:53
  • 3
    99% of dictionaries out there will not chase after Proto-Indo-European. It's simply beyond their scope. Also, not many Egyptian words got loaned in (and Egyptian was Afro-Asiatic, and meanwhile Latin, Sanskrit, and Greek were Indo-European.) Jan 21, 2016 at 2:19
  • 2
    The number of Greek words derived from Egyptian is microscopic.
    – fdb
    May 1, 2017 at 20:15
  • 1
    @Ricky It's not vague at all anymore.
    – Aryaman
    Jan 3, 2018 at 2:34

1 Answer 1


You are essentially asking two questions:

  1. Why aren't there etymologies for an English word going back to Ancient Egyptian?

This question is easily answered: Because such words are rare beasts and you won't find many. Ancient Greek and Latin didn't borrow many words from Ancient Egyptian.

  1. Why do etymological dictionaries stop where they stop?

This is a pragmatic decision of the compilers and editors. Space matters, and the time to compile the dictionary matters, too. For compound words they usually stop with stating the components, for derived words with the derivation, and for basic words the deeper relations are noted. You will often find notes see this or that lemma for more information.

  • 1
    For a counter example, consider oasis, which certainly comes via Latin from Greek, but Greek in turn borrowed it from ancient Egyptian wḫ'-ṭ (according to the OED).
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 25, 2015 at 18:53
  • 4
    The majority of Greek and Latin words (and English, German, Hindi, and Russian words too) derive from the unrecorded language Proto Indo-european. Some dictionaries do give these roots where they are known.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 25, 2015 at 18:54
  • @Colin Fine: I was alluding to this fact with the formulation "deeper relations". Some dictionaries give PIE roots, other give comparable words from other IE languages. Nov 25, 2015 at 20:09
  • I know; but it is not clear whether the OP understands this.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 28, 2015 at 0:26

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