For example what is the origin of name Catherine?

Etymology Dictionary says that:

it's from French Catherine, from Medieval Latin Katerina, from Latin Ecaterina, from Greek Aikaterine. The -h- was introduced 16c., probably a folk etymology from Greek katheros "pure." The initial Greek vowel is preserved in Russian form Ekaterina. As the name of a type of pear, attested from 1640s. Catherine wheel (early 13c.) is named for St. Catherine of Alexandria, legendary virgin martyr from the time of Maximinus who was tortured on a spiked wheel. Her name day is Nov. 25. A popular saint in the Middle Ages, which accounts for the popularity of the given name.

So the origin of this word is Greek? or Latin? or French?

How to find out?

  • 5
    You've quoted a text which gives you the origin, and tells you that the earliest form is Greek, but that it has gone through Latin and French. What answer are you looking for beyond that?
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 16:44
  • So the oldest language is always the origin? Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 17:02
  • The origin of borrowing is Greek. Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 18:34
  • If that's what you choose to mean by "origin", then that's what "origin" means. There is no single answer to your question. Any or all of the three languages may be the origin, depending on precisely what you want to use "origin" to mean.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 23, 2014 at 22:12
  • There are to special terms on this account: source of borrowing (language from which the loan word was taken into English) in our case it is French,and origin (the language to which the word may be traced) - here it is Greek. Commented Oct 24, 2014 at 8:06

3 Answers 3


Borrowing happens in stages. The English name Catherine is borrowed from French, the French from Latin, the Latin from Greek. From an English point of view the origin is French.

  • So unlike with rivers, the origin is not where it originates? If one wanted to trace a word back all the way, past it's mere origin, what word ought to be used in the sentence "trace the word right back to its ..."? Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 20:52
  • 2
    The origin is in the garden of Eden (or East Africa, whichever version you prefer). I have not been able to find my way there.
    – fdb
    Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 21:05
  • 3
    Follow Starostin to Proto-World. From there you're on your own (-; Commented Oct 22, 2014 at 21:07

Borrowing can also go back and forth. The word "flirt" is used in French, both as a noun (for the act or for the person) and as a verb ("flirter"). It was clearly borrowed, a few decades ago, from English.

But in English, it is said (among other possible origins) to possibly derives from the French "conter fleurette", borrowed a long time ago (16th century). I will not get into the etymology of "conter fleurette", since a quick scan of the web shows many not so compatible views of it.


Which origin?

If you're looking for which language a word first emerged, you'd be looking for the ultimate origin.

So in the case of the name Catherine, we can say that it is ultimately from Greek Aikaterine.

But sometimes we aren't so interested in the ultimate origin so much as an intermediate one, especially when we try to understand how the spelling or pronunciation has changed over time.

There isn't really a specific name for this, but a term I like to use among friends is vectoral origin. Can we determine which language has transmitted a particular word to another?

Catherine was directly loaned into English through the French Catherine, hence the identical spelling and similar pronunciation.

All of the steps you can find in a dictionary altogether constitute the origin of a word, or at least a speculation thereof.

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