English 370 Etymology Project


Morphology and Etymology and Dictionaries: Word History Assignment

The object of this assignment is simply to get you to familiarize yourself with the wealth of etymological history that many of our "normal" words in English have. To do this I'm asking you to look around in the IE (linguists don't always include the Proto- part of Proto-Indo-European) section of the American Heritage Dictionary, read some of the entries, and get a sense of how varied the derived words can be. I give you some examples here of words I think have interesting histories; I'm asking you to find one of your own. You can just browse the roots, looking for sets of related words.

One such root is *ang- (number 1 below), which is the root of anger, angina, anxiety, and angst. It once meant "tightness or pain," and that basic meaning is still central to each of its descendants. Anger is a tightness that can feel painful (mentally if not physically), angina is a physically painful condition of the heart; anxiety is a mentally painful (maybe not physically painful) emotion, and angst is a borrowing from the German which in the 20th century became a way of talking about an "object-less anxiety": a particular kind of anxiety often associated with a sense of existential meaninglessness.

The chief object of this exercise, though, is just to spend 30 minutes to an hour using the amazing AH Dictionary to introduce yourself to the deep history of the English language and the ways meanings have developed over time. (Details and examples of the assignment itself are below the examples--scroll down to find them.)


1. Hangnail: *ang nogh (tightness, pain in the shape of a nail) Anger, Angina, anxiety. Plus “spike” or “nail” (from *nogh- “spike, claw”). A hangnail is a painful nail-shaped spike of skin.

2. Venerable: *wen- (want, desire + able) = venerate, veneration, venereal, Venus, venison; win, wish. Venus is thus the goddess of “want” or “desire,” and the things you did in pursuit of that desire, like venereal disease, follow from that need. Venison is a (broadened) result of your hunting, venari in Latin, which is an activity that leads towards satisfying a need (“want”) or desire.

3. Melancholy: *ghel-2 = melancholic; yellow, gold, choler, cholera, glint, glare, glad. Choler was yellow bile, paired in ancient medicine with black bile. Choler made you fiery; Black bile made you nightlike, dark, brooding, student-ish.

4. Quintessence: *penk we (the very best, the most perfect) = quintessential; five, finger, quinque, cinq (French), punch (as a drink)—from Hindi descent and borrowed back into English!!! It gets its meaning from its being an alchemical term: the “fifth” element. Ancient science had a theory of the four elements: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. They were thought to make up all things. With the invention of the still, and thereby the production of alcohol, a fifth element—the “quintessence” —was added to the first four. This newly discovered element was imagined as a blend of fire and water—it was wet, and miscible with water, but it also burned. Water and fire.

5. Cherish: *ka (to hold dear) = cherishable (?); caress, charity, “cara” in Spanish; “cher” in French, meaning valued and/or expensive. Also in English “whore”—something “dear” in a way but also expensive. The double meaning of the Latin based words (“loved,” and “expensive”) extends to many of the Romance languages.

6. Candle *kand- (“shine, shining”) = to candle, candler; candescence, candid, candor, candidate (and how do you suppose this happened?), incense (that resulting from the burning of a candle).

7. Carrot *ker (1) (“horn”) = carrot top, carrot-shaped; head, horn, heart, along with cheer, corner, cervix (>Latin for “neck”).

8. Awkward *apo- (“after”) = awkwardly; after, post (as in a position to which one is assigned) not a post in the ground!), position, ebb, pogrom, suppose, component, compose

9. Ladder *klei- “to lean” = ladders, laddered (as in stockings); lean, decline, recline, proclivity, climax, climate, client, clitoris

10. Matrimony *mater- “mother” = matrimonial; matrix, metropolis, matter, Demeter, maternal, matriarchal, matriculate.

11. Testimony *trei- “three” = testimonial; three, trio, triad, testicle, testify, contest, tri-, triple, sitar (!) (via Persian).

12. Special *spek- (see “species,” the root of special) = speciality, extra special, specialness, specimen, despise, despicable, inspect, respect, skeptic, scope.

13. Clear *kel ǝ(2)- “to shout” = clarity, clearness, unclear, clarify, claim, exclaim, council, clamor, ecclesiastic, clear, declare, nomenclature, class.

14. Scissors * kaə-id- “to strike” = To scissor, scissors kick, concise, incisive, incision, precise, decide, chisel (Compare 15 and 16).


Addendum showing the difficulty of being sure about etymologies: even words that are much alike in their modern forms may not be from the same ancient root.

15. Shirt *sker(1)- “to cut, divide off” = tee shirt, dress shirt, shear, share, score, scabbard, scar, shard, short, shirt, screen, skirt, shore.

16. Science *skei- “to cut, to split” = science, conscience, nice, shit, omniscience, sheath, ski, schism, rescind, squire, esquire.


The Report assignment:


Peruse the PIE section of the American Heritage online dictionary. (ahdictionary.com) First scan entries to find a set of meaning that interests you (like those given above). Then explain the origin of your chosen word, along with the words it's connected to. You'll be sharing your research in groups in class on Monday.


Be sure to include:

1. Meaning of the word itself, its IE root, and how derived from its root; 2. Compounds and Cognates: 3 to 5, with connection explained.

Best sources: OED http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/

and American Heritage. https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/indoeurop.html#IR116300

(You will be well advised to use them both)


Emulous. From Latin, aemulus, itself derived from the PIE root *aim-


1. Eager or ambitious to equal or surpass another. He was emulous of his brother's wealth

2. Characterized or prompted by a spirit of rivalry. The match was played between emulous competitors.

3. Obsolete Covetous of power or honor; envious. The lad was aemulous of Achilles' mythic status


The English form comes from Latin, aemulus, itself derived from the IE root *aim- whose original sense was “to imitate.” Other words derived from this root in current English include “imitate” and “image.” Most interesting is the connection to “imagine” (and thus to “imagination”). Thus “imagination” is connected with the same root sense as imaging—creating images?—and/or perhaps “trying to be like something”?


Hide. From Old English, hydan, itself derived from the PIE *(s)keu


1. To put or keep out of sight or away from notice: he hid the money in a sock.
2. To prevent the disclosure or recognition of; conceal: she tried to hide the facts.
3. To cut off from sight; cover up: Clouds hid the stars. See Synonyms at block.
4. To avert (one's gaze), especially in shame or grief.
1. To keep oneself out of sight or notice. "they hid in the closet until Freddie was gone"
2. To seek refuge or respite: "no place to hide from boredom or anger or loneliness" (Matt Teague).


The English "hide" descends from the Germanic Old English hȳdan. Its PIE origin was *(s)keu = to cover, conceal. (PIE [k] changed over time into the English [h]--both are velar consonants) Related words include: hide, hose, huddle, custodian, custody. Hiding would seem to have an obvious connection to “cover” or “conceal.” That which is covered is hidden. But the connection to hose/long pants is more surprising, though “hose” does indeed "cover" one’s legs. Most interesting connection for me is the notion of “custody” as a form of “hiding” or "covering"something. That is a more metaphorical extension of the basic sense.