Morphology is the component of grammar that builds words out of units of meaning(morphemes) where a morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of language.

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.

I don't see any difference between morphology and etymology. Can somebody help me understand difference with examples! Note:- Following questions seems duplicate but the intent of the question is different from seemingly duplicate question

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    Can you explain in your own words what you think they each mean? The definitions you've provided seem completely different to me and I don't see how they could be thought of as being equivalent at all!
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 13:27

2 Answers 2


Etymology was the term used for both concepts up to the early 20th century. Then de Saussure postulated the incompatibility of diachrony and synchrony and nothing was ever the same again.

Etymology is a study of the history of words' form and/or meaning, and history implies diachrony. Thus, the word lord comes from Old English hlafweard "one who guards the loaves". During the centuries the form of this compound word changed (the two parts of the compound merged into a single stem), and also the meaning evolved into something different. The study of such processes is the diachronic analysis.

On the other hand, morphology refers to the word form in synchrony. When we analyse a word into its constitutive parts, such that they are functional within this language and speakers are, possibly, aware of them, we do a synchronic analysis. For example, an average speaker of English knows that landlord is a compound word built from land + lord, or that lords is a plural form of lord built by adding the plural marker -s to the stem. But no speaker would ever know the diachronic origin of the word lord from its Old English prototype, without a specialist training in Linguistics.

Saussure's claim is that above mentioned two approaches to the analysis of language cannot be combined together. You can do either one or the other. In other words, you cannot describe the synchronic grammar of a language making reference to some of its preceding diachronic stages.

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    Was etymology actually used to refer to morphology up until the 20th century? I have never seen any description of English, for example, that would call a description of lords as consisting of lord and the plural suffix -s its ‘etymology’. Commented Mar 24 at 14:29
  • synchrony and diachrony are not about individual words. They are about utterances in a language. The first looks at a language as is, the second looks at a language's evolution over time. Until Saussure the two were basically conflated: universalis.fr/encyclopedie/…. So, these are not really helpful per se to explain the difference between morphology and etymology. [the approaches mentioned above].
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 24 at 15:29
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    @Lambie I disagree when you say that synchrony/diachrony distinction is not about individual words. It's exactly about individual words (also, morphemes, phonemes, paradigms etc). The utterance has no diachrony, by definition. The utterances are not stored in the mind and then picked up, but rather generated. Commented Mar 25 at 15:41
  • Prenons comme repère la distinction faite par Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) entre les termes de « diachronie » et de « synchronie » dans son cours de linguistique générale. Selon le célèbre linguiste, la synchronie correspond à l’état dans lequel se trouve une langue à un moment déterminé de son histoire, alors que la diachronie s’intéresse à l’évolution de la langue dans une perspective de profondeur historique. preo.u-bourgogne.fr/textesetcontextes/index.php?id=2371
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 25 at 16:12
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    @Lambie mentioning your studies in France is so French, indeed. If you want to know, I have studied Saussure's semiotics directly from T. De Mauro, the author of the critical edition of the "Cours de linguistique générale". Anyway, Saussure never mentions the utterance, which was the main focus of my criticism. He speaks about two linguistics, a synchronic and a diachronic one; both linguistics study various levels of analysis, including phonology, morphology and lexicon. But there is no syntax. His examples of the synchrony vs. diachrony distinction all come from phonology and morphology. Commented Mar 26 at 21:05

Let's give an example:

You may be aware that all kinds of political scandals (especially in the US, like Iran-Contra-gate) are nowadays given names ending in -gate.

From a morphological point of view, -gate is is a suffix denoting "scandal".

From an etymological point of view, -"gate" is derived from the common English word gate (meaning, of course "gate") that is related to other Germanic words like Icelandic gat "hole" and that has outer-Germanic relations as well. It has acquired the meaning scandal rather recently due to the Watergate scandal in 1972 (that got its name from a place name).

You see, that etymology takes much more dimensions of explanation into account: Historical stages of the language, relations to other languages. Morphology is just a description of the present stage of the language.

  • Any term can be analzed for morphology or etymology. One takes the smallest unit of meaning into account while the other takes the whole word into account, either for a present time or a past time (historically).
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 24 at 21:23

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