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.

2 Answers 2


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
    – user20416
    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

Not really; while etymology is fascinating and I have researched it a lot; its practical use is basically trivia. It is a huge fallacy to assume that the etymology determines the meaning of the word in the modern era. For instance, if I called you “a Villain”; you would not think “So he said I am a person from a rural settlement”; “person from a rural settlement” is the etymological meaning of the word in fact, very different from the modern definition of “Villain”. Similarly, if I called you “nice” you would not think I meant naive. Nor would you think if I was calling you “silly” I meant you were “holy”. Both of those are the etymological meanings of those words; and have very little connection to what the words mean now. The word “humbled” originally meant “humiliated”, now it means “honored” (I have heard people say things like a politician saying 'I am humbled to accept your election', a meaning wholly inconsistent with the old sense;) which is pretty close to meaning the opposite of what is used to. Those are just some of the examples I know off the top of my head. This is not unique to English; name any language that has a well-documented history, and you can find many words that originally meant something completely different then they do now. for one example out of many, the word “arch” in Greek used to mean “Authority”; but now it refers to an obscene part of the human body. Current use decides the meanings of words, not etymology.

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    Humbled still means what it originally meant: ‘made less proud/haughty/high’. It does not mean ‘honoured’. Similarly, the arch that refers to a body part is related to arcs and bows (describing geometrical shapes) and comes from Latin. It’s completely unrelated to Greek rulers, which belong with the prefix arch(i)-, referring to something that begins or comes first, from ἄρχω ‘begin’. That’s not to say that words don’t radically change their meanings over time – they do – but those are not examples of it. Nov 22, 2022 at 10:59
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    Capitalization fixed; and it apears that the change in the meaning of "humbled" is still ongoing; Nov 23, 2022 at 0:35

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