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Etymology: The DNA of Words

The word “etymology” comes from the Latin word “etymologĭa” and also the Greek word “ἐτυμολογία,” which is composed of “ἔτυμος étimos” (true sense”), and “λογία” (“the study of”). Therefore, etymology is the study of the meaning of words, or parts thereof. For example, Latin and Greek are two “heavyweights,” as they are the source of many words in multiple languages and by knowing what these words mean, one can figure out the meaning of many other words and construct even more.

Here are a couple of examples: “anthro,” which comes from Greek, means “man” and “logy” means science or study; thus “anthropology” is the science of the study of the human race. In turn, “phagy” refers to the action of eating, so therefore an anthropophagist is a cannibal. “Ornith” means “bird,” so an animal that is an ornithophagist is one that feeds exclusively– or mainly on birds.

Countless words can be recognized, constructed and explained by learning the etymology of their components, and this is not limited to solely words with Greek or Latin roots. Depending on the language, words’ origins and influences can be surprising. A clear example is the Spanish language, which has many words with an Arabic origin (Spain was under Muslim rule for several centuries) and many words that we may consider characteristic of the Spanish language actually come from Arabic, such as “ojalá” (Spanish for “I hope”), which means “if Allah wills.” If only the Christians knew!

Just as every living being carries its entire evolutionary history within its DNA, words contain surprising information about their origins, which may come from a culture, be influenced by another and become enriched and redefined and adapt along with human history. Every word in every language has been passed on from one generation to another as it expands toward new horizons. And it’s etymology that allows us to understand the original meaning of words and their variations throughout their linguistic development.