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Name:
Historical Origins of English Words and Phrases
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etymology, word origins
etymology: [et-uh-mol-uh-jee, ět-ə-mŏl-ə-jē]
-noun
1. the derivation of a word.
2. an account of the history of a particular word or element of a word.
3. the study of historical linguistic change, esp. as manifested in individual words.


Ever wonder where the heck that word or phrase you just read came from? Have you ever tried to increase your vocabulary, but the words seemed so foreign that you couldn't get them to stick? Is English your second language and you're having trouble understanding all the crazy idioms we have? Or maybe you just have an interest in both history and language? Well, you've come to the right place!

Every weekday, we post a word or phrase with an explanation of its historical and linguistic origins. Some of them may be words or phrases you've said in every-day conversation, while others are so bizarre that you won't believe they're part of the English language, let alone of this world. But I promise that all of our definitions are legit - we have a stack of reference texts that would make any library proud.

Want to suggest a word or phrase? Post a comment on the most recent update or at my personal journal (gwoman), and I'll put your word on the request list.

Be sure to check out our sister community, 1word1day!

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Here is a list of language names, their geographic locations, and their approximate usage dates (if known) for anyone interested:

Anglican The Old English dialect of the Angles; the dialect of Old English spoken in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia.
Anglo-French the French spoken in England from the Norman Conquest (1066) through the Middle Ages; the administrative and legal language of England from the 12th to 17th century CE.
Anglo-Latin the form of Medieval Latin used in England during the Middle English period.
Anglo-Norman the dialect of Anglo-French spoken by the Norman settlers (French-speaking descendants of Scandinavians who settled in Normandy in the 9th century CE) in England after the Conquest (1066). Essentially the same as Anglo-French.
Arabic the Semitic language of the Arabs and the language of Islam.
Armenian the Indo-European language of Armenia.
Assyrian Akkadian dialect spoken in the empire that flourished on the Tigris River around the 7th century BCE.
Celtic Indo-European language branch that includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton. Also the language spoken by the ancestral group during the presumed period of unity.
Danish North Germanic language spoken in Denmark.
Dutch West Germanic language spoke in the Netherlands, descended from the Low German dialects of the Franks and Saxons.
East Frisian variant of Frisian spoke on the islands off the North Sea coast of Germany.
Egyptian Afroasiatic (Hamitic) language spoken in ancient Egypt.
English West Germanic language spoken in England after c.450 CE, heavily influenced by French and somewhat by Scandinavian.
Flemish West Germanic dialect spoken in Flanders, generally regarded as the Belgian variant of Dutch rather than as a separate tongue.
French, Romance language spoken chiefly in France.
Frankish, West Germanic language of the Franks, inhabitants of northern Gaul from the 5th - 6th centuries CE., their descendants ruled France, Germany, Italy in the 9th century CE., and the language had strong influence on French.
Frisian West Germanic language spoken in Friesland, the lowland coast of the North Sea and nearby islands, closely related to Dutch and Old English.
Gallo-Romance or Gallo-Roman, the vernacular language of France around 500-900 CE; intermediate between Vulgar Latin and Old French.
Gaelic Celtic language of Highland Scotland.
Gaulish Celtic language of ancient Gaul.
German West Germanic language spoken in Germany, Austria, parts of Switzerland, technically "New High German."
Gothic the East Germanic language of the Goths, extinct since the 16th century CE, but because of early missionary work among them we have Gothic texts 200 years earlier than those in any other Germanic language, which are crucial to reconstructing Proto-Germanic.
Greek Indo-European language spoken in Greece in the classical period, circa 8th century BCE to 4th century CE. Among its dialects were Ionian-Attic (the language of Homer and the Athenian dramatists), Aeolic (used in Thessaly, Boeotia and Lesbos), and Dorian (the language of Sparta).
Germanic a branch of Indo-European, ancestral language of English, German, Dutch, Frisian, Scandinavian tongues and several extinct languages such as Gothic and Frankish.
Classical Hebrew ancient Semitic language of the Israelites.
Hungarian Finno-Ugric (non-Indo-European) language spoken in Hungary; Magyar.
Indo-European the family of languages that includes most of the languages of modern Europe (English among them) and some current and extinct ones in western and southern Asia. All are presumed to share a common ancestor, Proto-Indo-Eueopean.
Irish the Celtic language spoken in Ireland.
Iranian the branch of Indo-European languages spoken on and around the plateau of Iran, including modern Farsi and Kurdish.
Italian the Romance language spoken in Italy, it evolved out of the Tuscan dialect in the Renaissance.
Kentish the dialect of Old English spoken by the Jutes who formed the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent.
Classical Latin the Italic language of ancient Rome until about the 4th century CE.
Lithuanian the Baltic language spoken in Lithuania.
Late Latin the literary Latin language as spoken and written circa 300 - 700 CE.
Low German "plattdeutsch," the modern descendant of Old Saxon.
Middle Dutch the Dutch language as it was spoken and written circa 1100 - 1500 CE.
Middle English the English language as written and spoken circa 1100 - 1500 CE.
Mercian the Anglican dialect of Old English spoken in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
Middle French the French language as written and spoken circa 1400 - 1600 CE.
Middle High German the High German language as written and spoken about 1100 - 1500 CE.
Medieval Latin Latin as written and spoken circa 700 - 1500 CE.
Middle Low German the Low German language as written and spoken circa 1100 - 1500 CE.
Modern English language of Britain and British America since the mid-16th century CE.
Modern Greek language of Greece since about 1500 CE.
Modern Latin Latin language in use since 1500 CE, chiefly scientific.
North Germanic the subgroup of Germanic comprising Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Old Norse, etc.; also the language spoken by the ancestral group during the presumed period of unity.
Norman the French of the Normans.
North Sea Germanic the closely related languages of the Germanic tribes along the coastal and lowland regions of the North Sea coast of continental Europe before the period of the Anglo-Saxon migration, comprising Old Low Franconian, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, and Old English.
Northumbrian the Anglican dialect of Old English spoken in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Old Celtic ancestral language of modern Irish, Scottish, Welsh and related languages.
Old Church Slavonic the earliest attested Slavic language, known from the 9th century C.E. Used by the Slavs of Macedonia and Bulgaria.
Old Danish the form of West Norse spoken in Denmark after approximately 1000 C.E.
Old Dutch also known as Old Low Franconian, the Germanic speech used on the North Sea coast of continental Europe circa 700 - 1000 CE.
Old English the English language as written and spoken circa 450 - 1100 CE.
Old French the French language as written and spoken circa 900 - 1400 CE. More than 90 percent of it was from Vulgar Latin, with a smattering of Celtic and Germanic, plus some Middle Latin learned terms.
Old Frisian language akin to English spoken on the North Sea coast of modern Netherlands and Germany before 1500 CE.
Old High German the ancestor of the modern literary German language, spoken in the upland regions of Germany; German language as written and spoken from the earliest period to approximately 1100 CE.
Old Irish the Irish language as written and spoken from earliest times to the 11th century CE.
Old Italian the Italian language as written and spoken before the 16th century CE.
Old Low German the Low German language as written and spoken from earliest times to the 12th century.
Old Norse, also known as Old Icelandic, the Norwegian language as written and spoken circa 100 to 1500 C.E., the relevant phase of it being "Viking Norse" (700-1100 CE), the language spoken by the invaders and colonizers of northern and eastern England circa 875-950 CE. This was before the rapid divergence of West Norse (Norway and the colonies) and East Norse (Denmark and Sweden), so the language of the vikings in England was essentially the same, whether they came from Denmark or from Norway. Only a few of the loan words into English can be distinguished as being from one or the other group.
Old North French the dialect of northern France before the 1500's, especially that of coastal Normandy and Picardy.
Old Persian the Persian language as written and spoken from 7th century BCE to 4th century BCE.
Old Provençal Romance language of the Troubadors, spoken in southern France before approximately 1500 CE.
Old Prussian a West Baltic language similar to Lithuanian, extinct since the 17th century CE.
Old Saxon a West Germanic language, the earliest written form of Low German, spoken circa 700 - 1100 CE.
Old Slavic another name for Old Church Slavonic (q.v.).
Old Spanish the Spanish language as written and spoken circa 1145 - the 16th century CE.
Old Swedish the Swedish language as written and spoken from approximately 900 - 1500 CE.
Oscan the Italic language of the Samnites in middle and southern Italy in pre-Roman times.
Persian also known as Farsi, modern Iranian language spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.
Proto-Germanic, hypothetical prehistoric ancestor of all Germanic languages, including English.
Phoenician the extinct Semitic language of the Phoenicians, closely related to Hebrew.
Proto-Indo-European the hypothetical reconstructed ancestral language of the Indo-European family. The time scale is much debated, but the most recent date proposed for it is about 5,500 years ago.
Polish West Slavic language spoken in Poland.
Portuguese Romance language spoken chiefly in Portugal and Brazil.
Provençal Romance language of several dialects in southern France.
Russian East Slavic language of Russia.
Scandinavian also known as North Germanic, sub-group of Germanic spoken in Scandinavia consisting of Norwegian, Swedish, Danish.
Scottish the variety of English spoken by the people of Scotland. Not to be confused with Gaelic (q.v.), which is Celtic. A number of French words entered English through Scotland because of the political alliance and connection of Scotland and France during the 13th - 16th centuries CE.
Semitic major subgroup of Afroasiatic language family, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian.
Serbian a Slavic language, generally written in Cyrillic.
Sanskrit the classical Indian literary language from the 4th century BCE.
Slavic a principal branch of the Indo-European language family spoken in Eastern Europe. Includes Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian.
Spanish also known as Castilian, Romance language spoken in Spain and Spanish America.
Swedish North Germanic language spoken in Sweden.
Turkish Turkic (non-Indo-European) language spoken in Turkey.
Vulgar Latin the everyday speech of the Roman people, as opposed to literary Latin.
West African languages of the Guinea coast and inland regions of Africa, the principal source of slaves for the European colonies in the New World.
West Frisian dialect variant of Frisian spoken in the Netherlands.
West Germanic the subgroup of Germanic comprising English, Dutch, German, Yiddish, Frisian, etc.; also the language spoken by the ancestral group during the presumed period of unity.
Wolof Niger-Congo language of Senegal and Gambia.
West Saxon the dialect of Old English spoken in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex.

(taken and modified from Douglas Harper’s http://www.etymonline.com/ )


A link to common prehistoric Indo-European roots and their meanings.

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