Literally speaking, ‘etymology’ means the study of the history of different words, their origins and how their form and meaning have changed over time. Though it is a subject of great interest to people who work with languages, it might not seem as important for us, i.e., people who don’t work with languages.
However, knowing the etymology of a word can be the key to communicating effectively (in writing as well as a verbal form). Since it is also common for different words to have the same ‘root word’, it can also help increase your vocabulary. And honestly, let’s face it, many of the stories about how and where these words came from are quite interesting and fun to read.
So, whether you are an expert or a rookie, here is a list of must-read books that are bound to grab your interest.
Word Origins…and How We Know Them (Anatoly Liberman)
This is the perfect book with which you can begin your search for word origins. Written in a humorous and conversational style, it offers a detailed investigation of the science of etymology and history of words.
The author, an internationally acclaimed etymologist himself, explains that English words can be made in many ways. He also explains the ways in which etymologists try to get to the origins of different words. Not only does he tell the origins of hundreds of words, but he also tells us how these origins were discovered.
Interspersed with dozens of examples of proven word histories, he illustrates the correct way to trace the origins of the words, as well as some of the incorrect ways to trace them. And every once in a while, the reader is treated to interesting word facts. Readers discover that though some words may seem to be related etymologically, they have completely different origins. This book is a medium through which the readers can peek into how etymologists work.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Word-Origins-How-Know-Them/dp/0195387074
The Etymologicon (Mark Forsyth)
This book is a unique guide to the strange aspects of the English language. This book will appeal to the linguist in you and illustrate the hidden meanings behind common words and phrases that we use in our day- to- day lives. It traces the evolution of words throughout history.
The series of words and phrases picked in this book are wonderfully diverse, yet interconnected. It dissects their origin, along with humorous quotes, anecdotes, and hilariously logical conclusions.
Written in a conversational language, it attempts to answer questions like- why ‘salt’ is related to ‘soldier’? Why do guns have feminine names? It is bound to hold your interest with its engaging and witty content.
The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language (Mark Forsyth)
‘Horologicon’ originally meant a daily diary of devotion, or a ‘book of hours’, kept by priests or monks. This book is a guide to similarly obsolete, yet charming words that we no longer use, mostly because we have never heard of them. This book is recommended for anyone with an interest in language.
This book is less about the origin, history or evolution of words through the ages; it is more about the antique aspects of the English language that have been forgotten over time. Each chapter is linked to an hour of the day and the things associated with that hour. The author’s advice is that you don’t read it cover- to- cover. Rather, use it as a reference book and read only the chapter relevant to the hour of the day that you find yourself in. One unique aspect of this book is, every page will have at least something memorable for the reader.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Horologicon-Jaunt-Through-English-Language/dp/0425264378
The Oxford Guide to Etymology (Philip Durkin)
This book is a guide to investigating every aspect of where words came from and how they have changed. The author himself is chief etymologist of the Oxford English Dictionary and shows the different types of evidence that illuminate the different ways in which language changes form and meaning.
The book is filled with examples that demonstrate how such changes can be a part of wider linguistic processes, and how these changes can be affected by a mix of social and cultural factors. It shows what language families are, how they are created and how words from different languages can have the same ancestor or ‘root word’. It even investigates the etymologies of the names of people and places. Overall, it is a fascinating account of the history of words.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Guide-Etymology-Philip-Durkin/dp/0199691614
The Unexpected Evolution of Language: Discover the Surprising Etymology of Everyday Words (Justin Cord Hayes)
The Unexpected Evolution of Language digs into the origin of 208 different terms and interesting stories about how their meanings changed over time.
It has lots of tidbits and trivia to keep it interesting. The terms are arranged in alphabetical order and offer interesting insights- like the fact that at one time, a bully was actually a bastard; that ‘awful’ first originated as a compliment; or that ‘nice’ actually meant foolish and ‘bimbo’ was slang for stupid.
The book traces how and why these words changed meanings. It tells the backstory of the origin of these words. Though it is not suited to be used as a reference guide or for academic purposes, it makes for an engrossing read, making you wonder just exactly how much languages can change over time.
The Origins of English Words (Joseph Twadell Shipley)
This book emphasizes the fact that there are no direct records of the original Indo- European language.
However, by comparing the vocabularies of its various descendants, it is possible to reconstruct the basic Indo- European roots.
The author catalogs these proposed roots and follows the fascinating process by which some of their offshoots have grown. There are several anecdotes and examples to illustrate all the points. Overall, an interesting read about linguistics, literature, history, folklore, anthropology, philosophy and science.
Studies in Etymology (Charles W. Dunmore)
Studies in Etymology is a study of Latin as well as Greek roots and grammar of word-formation. It presents these influences on the English language with clarity.
The first half is devoted to Latin roots and word formation and language development with the help of Latin grammar. The second half is dedicated to Greek, Greek grammar and syntax. It also deals with the influences of Greek mythology, science and medicine on the development of words in English.
It includes vocabulary charts and extensive exercises to aid memorization and learning comprehension. It also includes additional words for study and indexes for prefixes, suffixes, and word stems. It can help its readers to trace and better grasp the organic development of the English language. This book is most useful for college-level classics or humanities students.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Studies-Etymology-2nd-Charles-Dunmore/dp/1585100129
English Words : History and Structure (Donka Minkova and Robert P. Stockwell)
As the title suggests, this book focuses on historical origin and structure of English words.
It highlights the fact that English vocabulary is an ever-changing list of words, with new words being added every day, and words being removed from the language because they are simply not used anymore. The English language is extensively built from borrowing words or word roots from other languages.
It also addresses the question of where new words originate, how they get created if they are not borrowed from any other language. The book suggests that this is done with the help of creative imagination, joining initial letters of a phrase, shortening, derivation, conversion, compounding, using names as ordinary words, etc.
Exercises are provided at the end of each chapter and an online workbook contains readings and additional exercises to strengthen the knowledge acquired.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/English-Words-Structure-Donka-Minkova/dp/0521709172
The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language (Melvyn Bragg)
This is a book that presents the story of the English language, following its journey from being simply a regional dialect to becoming a global language. Today, English is spoken by over two billion people worldwide.
The journey is presented as a marvelous adventure; a story involving jealousy, intrigue, and the war against a hoard of invaders armed with their own languages. It is from these languages that the speakers of English language borrowed some roots and made their own words.
Along the way, the story involves a bunch of extraordinary people, places, and events. It explains the significance of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the arrival of The Canterbury Tales and William Shakespeare- who added about 2000 words to English. It explains how different languages found their way into the English language as root words.
Finally, how English became a universal language, because of the fact that it is easier to ’borrow’ from other languages to make and understand English words.
Overall, this book is a captivating read about power, religion, trade and how this language found its way to become a globally accepted universal language.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Adventure-English-Biography-Language/dp/1611450071
Word Origins: An Exploration and History of Words and Language (Wilfred Funk)
This book presents the stories of the origin of thousands of words- how, when and where they originated, how their meanings have evolved and developed through time.
The words are categorized according to themes- politics, religion, history, cooking, scientific names, proper names, sports, Greek and Latin prefixes, etc.
The author is a noted lexicographer himself and tries to dissect all the words in detail, along with their history. The book was originally published in 1950. Although many editions have been published since then, you might still find the book to be a little outdated, as our use of common words has also changed since 1950.
Despite that, it will make for quite an interesting read if you are curious about language and its history.
Amazon link to buy:
The Roots of English: A Reader’s Handbook of Word Origins (Robert Claiborne)
In his book, Clairborne discusses the origin and sources of language in general. He describes the German, Latin and Greek roots of these words.
The book gives an enlightening glimpse into the fascinating word histories of English vocabulary. It contains an index of English words that lists the Indo- European roots in alphabetical order, with its descendants in English.
It is a reader-friendly guide to the history of the English language.
You can read it cover to cover if you wish to, although it can also be used as a reference guide. The author’s insightful and witty comments follow quite frequently and add a humorous element.
The book is recommended to anyone who is interested in the English language or just words in general. It caters to the need for language buffs, linguists and language teachers or students alike.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Roots-English-Readers-Handbook-Origins/dp/0812917162
The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase (Mark Forsyth)
The author, in this book, captures dozens of means by which a writer or a speaker can turn out a memorable phrase. It is a book about expressions, the rhetoric aspect of language, how to use it, and how we use it all the time and don’t have the slightest clue.
This book is more about writing and you can improve upon your work, by using the appropriate phrases in the right places. It gives examples from history and modern-day and explains what kind of impact these have on the reader. It explains the secrets that make phrases like “To be or not to be” memorable. It will truly help you understand how language works.
This book is perfect for anyone who is interested in language and is constantly searching for just the right sentence, whether they are learning to be better writers, readers or speakers.
It proves that you don’t need to have anything important to say- you simply need to learn to say it well.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Eloquence-Mark-Forsyth/dp/1785781723
What’s in a Word? (Webb Garrison)
This is a humorous little encyclopaedia of more than three hundred words and phrases, their origin and how their meanings have changed over time.
It is a series of short stories explaining the origins of words or phrases that you hear in your everyday life.
Stories that are sly, witty and rather clever. The book is divided into several sections- technology, science, religion. It is not exactly a comprehensive and detailed study of the etymology of the words or phrases; it is simply a fun collection that explains where they came from.
The words and phrases that are picked in this book have a definite documented history. Though the book is not suitable for you if you are looking for reference guides and workbooks for academic purposes, this one definitely makes for a light and interesting read.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Word-Webb-Garrison/dp/B001JHYSU6
Word Power Made Easy (Norman Lewis)
If you are looking to improve your English vocabulary, this is the perfect book for you. It provides a simple, step- by- step method for increasing your knowledge and mastering the language.
It is more than simply a list of words, definitions, and exercises; it offers a quite interesting study of etymology of the words- word origins, grammatical principles and even ways to remember the meanings of words easily. The techniques used in this book can help you remember the words that you learn here permanently. It gives its readers a strong foundation for etymology and understanding word roots.
It is arranged in thematic sections- flattering your friends, insulting your enemies, how to talk about science and medicine- it’s all here. You also get tips on how to avoid spelling errors. It is loaded with helpful reviews, progress checking exercises and quizzes to reinforce the material.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Word-Power-Made-Easy-Vocabulary/dp/110187385X
The Story of English in 100 Words (David Crystal)
In his unique new history of the world’s most widely- spoken language, the author (who is a linguist himself) draws on words that best illustrate a variety of sources that have shaped the language, ever since English came into being in the fifth century.
He uses 100 words as a framework to trace how the English language has developed and changed form and meaning over centuries. The words are in chronological order, based on when they first appeared. Each word is used as a starting point for a brief discussion on these changes. Though the chapters are short, the book is recommended to people who have just started reading about etymology, and have not read a lot of words- origin books yet.
The book examines all kinds of influences that have effected changes in the meanings of several words, and the overall development of the language itself. All in all, a fascinating and witty tour of the English language.
Amazon link to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Story-English-100-Words/dp/1846684285