etymology: the origin and historical development (evolution) of a word as evidenced by the study of its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning.

[ ] indicates etymological information in most dictionaries.

< indicates "derived from."

The earliest source is most important.

A good etymology will give the earliest source word and its meaning (unless it is the same as the current meaning).

Foreign words are usually italicized.

The abbreviation system in each dictionary is different. Get to know yours.

Sometimes an etymology directs you to another word or citation. For a complete etymology you should look this word up also and add its etymology to that of the first.

Sample Etymology:

vision [ME<O Fr.<Lat. visio < videre, to see]

Explanation: The English word "vision" is derived through Middle English and Old French from the Latin word visio. The Latin word is the earliest source and comes from the word videre, "to see."

A weak etymology:

martyr [Old English, Late Latin, Greek Aeolic form of myrts, martyros]

This etymology is poor because it does not indicate the meaning of the Greek source word martyros (witness). If your dictionary doesn't either, you should use another dictionary for etymological work.

This document has been placed on the web by Prof. Tom Sienkewicz for his students in CLAS224 Word Elements at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions about this material, you can contact him at

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