When studying English, your teacher might talk to you about a word’s etymology. The etymology of a word is the history or the origin of the word. Advanced learners of English are the ones most likely to have this kind of a lesson (in a word’s eytmology) with a teacher, but it’s possible some beginning level or intermediate level students would benefit from it.

Why should we study the history of English words? There are two really good reasons for this. First, you will learn that the English language is composed of many different languages: German, Latin, Danish, Hebrew, French, and Greek. Understanding one of these languages will help you with your English. Second, studying etymology helps students realize that the meanings of words change over time, and that these meanings are determined by the people who use the language. We, the people, keep languages alive by using them. Teachers and academics try to enforce rules of grammar and usage on us, but the real language comes from the people. To learn English well requires that you interact with the people who use it.

Take, for example, the word "prohibit," which is a verb. The origin of this word is in Latin (prohibitio). It’s use in English has been marked at sometime around the 14th or 15th century, before modern English was spoken. People who speak French and Spanish will recognize this word. In German it might be verbot or verboten.

As you study the origin of a word, you may discover that the word can appear in different forms. The word "prohibit" can be changed from a verb to a noun with a "tion" ending to form "prohibition." In American English, a "prohibition" is a ban, or something is made illegal. The word "prohibition" is loaded with meaning because in the United States we associate it with the Prohibition era, a period of time when the use or production of alcohol was illegal (from 1920 – 1933).

"Prohibit" is a common word in English, but it’s three syllables long (pro hi bit) and many Americans would rather use the word "ban" which is just one syllable. However, you still need to know the word "prohibit" because you never know when it might pop up in a conversation or in a news report on television or in the newspaper.

There’s no telling where the study of a word’s etymology might take you. It will definitely deepen your knowledge of the language but also of history, science, math, geography, and culture.

  • In class today, students studied the etymology of the word "private."
  • Do you know the etymology of the word "substance"?
  • The study of a word’s etymology can help you understand English.


You can discover a word’s etymology in a dictionary.


Click here to learn more words.

April 5, 2014