The Fascinating World of Etymology

So many words that we use in common – avatar, jungle, pizza, sofa, alcohol, zero, assassin to name just a few – are not originally English. They are actually words from other languages that have seamlessly blended into the English tongue. As one of the most vibrant and assimilative of languages; English and more particularly English etymology, present a fascinating opportunity for study.

What is etymology?

Etymology is the study of the history of words. Where and from what language is a given word derived? What is the root? How has the meaning of the world changed over time?

Take the word pilaf for instance. It is a dish made of rice and spices, cooked long with meat, poultry or sea food. The origin of the word is from the Turkish pilav or the Persian pilaw but is now used all over the English speaking world. This is interesting to know because it also tells you that the dish pilaf itself originated in this Asian region. So the etymology of a word is always interesting to know about.

English encompasses so many different languages

Since the English were extremely prolific travelers and conquerors, the language itself has borrowed extensively from many other languages. It is obvious that the European languages (French, German, Dutch, Spanish, etc.), would have had a very significant influence due to geographical proximity, trade and commerce and also because of the common origin of some of the languages.

But words have been derived from distant areas: words from African languages, the Australian aboriginals, Hebrew, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Sanskrit, Maori, Malay and even the indigenous languages of the Americas have all found their way into English. Here are some examples of words that made their way into the English lexicon from other languages:

  • Words such as hickory, husky, moccasin, moose, chipmunk, opossum, pecan, skunk and so many others are derived from indigenous languages of the Americas.
  • Words like dingo, boomerang and yabber are from the Aboriginal Australian language.
  • Banana, bogus, cola, jazz, jive, tote, okay, tango, yam, banjo, safari, zebra, and many others are actually of West African or Bantu origin.
  • Words such as bungalow, cheetah, jungle, khaki, loot, pundit, mantra, guru, pajama, thug and scores of others are all derived from Indian languages.

Then there are many Yiddish words that have entered the English lexicon, such as bagel, chutzpah, glitch, klutz, kosher, maven, schlub, spiel, tush, and a host of others.

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