Does etymology have any role in everyday speech? For example, do common language practices preserve semantic connotations that are influenced by etymology?

A simple example from Oxford Dictionary of English for "build":

Old English byldan, from bold, botl ‘dwelling’, of Germanic origin; related to bower.

When I say "build", in what way, if at all, am I drawing on the idea of "dwelling" due to its origin in English?

I'm aware of poets that spend a career with roots, though I pass on examples of their poetics. I'm interested in whether everyday speech has its etymon available in it, without recourse to the ideal of poets being the guardian of language.

1 Answer 1


Quite the reverse. People sometimes argue that a word has a particular meaning because of its etymology: this argument is always bogus, and even has a name: the etymological fallacy.

Sometimes knowledge of etymology may allow people to guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word, especially if it is from classical (Latin or Greek) roots; but their guesses will not be reliable, and sometimes far from accurate.

  • hm yeah. i asked on philosophy stackexchange and got a less philosophical answer. the only way i can see it being available is thru micro changes in word meaning, over the course of years rather than centuries i mean, and if those are driven by the word's history Oct 1, 2019 at 3:59
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    "Micro changes in word meaning" is just about right, but "micro" is way too big a scale. We're talking picopico here. Every single use of every single word by every single speaker over their entire lives for generations is different, in intention, pronunciation, meaning, and context, just like very single wildflower is different genetically, somatically, and situationally. Over the centuries, there are trends. That's historical linguistics.
    – jlawler
    Oct 1, 2019 at 15:51

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