Etymology for the people

There’s an interesting interview at Drunken Koudou with historian and author Douglas Harper. Harper is the creator of an old favourite website of mine, the Online Etymology Dictionary (aka Etymonline), which offers a wealth of succinct and well-researched word histories.

Useful for quick reference, fun and fascinating for deeper delving, it’s quite the rabbit hole for language lovers. If you haven’t, try it: enter a word, any word, and see where it takes you. I’ve sprinkle-linked a few examples in the text below.

Recalling how it all started, Harper says:

I wanted a free, thorough, reliable place to go online to find the standard etymologies of English words. Or to discover that their origin was mysterious. I went looking for such a thing online, and didn’t find it. So I started to make it.

This generous act became a prolonged and time-consuming project that has kept Harper busy for years. (He’s currently expanding the dictionary, as well as re-writing and copy editing the entire thing.) In the interview, he describes the website’s development and how he goes about composing a new entry. He talks about the fluidity of language and words and how etymology illuminates their ever-shifting identities. Asked about using words “in the right way”, he responds:

I’m always glad when people want to use words carefully and with an awareness that a word means one thing and not another. But people will use words as they choose, and they always have. In English perhaps more than most tongues, there isn’t a bright shining line around “the right way” to use the words. In fact, etymology dictionaries are testimonials to ways people have stretched, bent, and mangled the language to suit their needs. Language is for people, not pedants.

The emphasis is mine, added in hearty agreement. You can read the rest of the interview here.

* * *

On a related note, Language Hat wrote last week about the origin of the word wanton and its unusual prefix wan-; the comments include some discussion about how best to abbreviate “Online Etymology Dictionary”. (OED is too closely associated with the Oxford English Dictionary.)

After suggesting OEtyD, and considering the other initialisms proposed, I began to favour Etymonline. It conveys the website’s address ( and its subject, it’s unambiguous and easy on the eye, and it’s used by Douglas Harper himself.

14 Responses to Etymology for the people

  1. Etymology should be for the people but will remain in the hands of bourgeois elite until the workers take over the means of conjunction.

  2. Fran says:

    I recommend etymonline at school. I love it.

  3. John Cowan says:

    That’s means of disjunction, you pseudo-Stakhanovite left deviationist!

  4. Stan says:

    Jams, John: ha ha! I’ll stay out of this one, thanks.

    Fran: I thought you would. Love it, that is. Bet your students do too.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for the link, Stan, I’ve added it to my own.

  6. Stan says:

    You’re welcome, WWW. It’s a keeper.

  7. Sean Jeating says:

    For a tad moment I thought the Ex-Taoiseach to come had been so kind offering advice to Jams O’Donnell Esq.. :)
    End of the beforegoing.

    The Etymonline is a fine site for me to once and again to visit. Not too often, though, as I’d always feel tempted to spend hours there. :)

    PS: Did I mention that this pedant thinks that language is for the people? Each to their own.

  8. Claude says:

    WOW! And now, I know where it comes from! What a place to visit. And it’s so easy to use. Thanks and thanks. You’re also a treasure, Stan.

  9. Stan says:

    Sean: Well said. Pedantry has its place, but too often takes the form of mean-spirited nit-picking.

    Claude: You’re most welcome. And you’re right, it’s very easy to use. Happy browsing!

  10. Yeah, the Online Etymology Dictionary has been in my bookmarks for years, too.

    I’ve never liked the interface, though. To look up a word starting with “E”, say, you have to either type the whole word or else guess which page from 1 to 34 it’s likely to appear on. Something in between (allowing serendipitious discovery without wasting time) would be a great improvement.

    But that fault aside, it’s a great site.

  11. Stan says:

    Dragon: Yes, a better search function would improve the site. I wouldn’t call its lack a fault, though, and the page-guessing brings its own serendipity.

  12. John Cowan says:

    I search it with Google, thus: [ rack*]. In general, Google search works far better than site search, except of course on pay sites that Google can’t see (they are allowed to see some of them by arrangement, such as

  13. Stan says:

    Thanks, John. That’s a useful tip.

  14. John Cowan says:

    Sean Jeating: Fortunately, I doubt we are any relation. Mac Éoghain is a common enough name, given the vast number of Éoghans there have been in the country at one time or another. In any case, I am third-generation Irish-American, and half German at that.

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