Be an Etymologist

Do you ever wonder about the patterns that you see in language? Etymology is the study of words, how they evolve over time, and how they spread across different languages. Etymology can be essential for properly interpreting our records of the past. It can also help us better understand the words we use and improve our writing skills.


Beginning a Career as a Professional Etymologist

  1. Focus on language in high school. To get a head start, take AP language courses, including AP English and possibly AP Spanish. While your school probably doesn't have an etymology club, it might have other clubs that will make you think more critically about language. A poetry club, for example, might expose you to new language concepts and writers.
  2. Major in a field pertaining to language. When getting your bachelor’s degree in college, study something that would inform your career as an etymologist. Good fields include Linguistics, English, Communications, Creative Writing, Journalism, Literature, or Library Science.[1]
    • It is possible to apply to a graduate degree in linguistics without an undergraduate degree in a related field. You will, however, find it to be more difficult than it would be otherwise.
  3. Pursue a graduate degree in linguistics. In order to be an etymologist you will need a Ph.D. in linguistics. Prior to that, you might also need to get a master’s degree in linguistics. When picking a graduate school, you should be particularly mindful that you go somewhere with a professor or professors who focus on etymology.[2]
    • In a Ph.D. program, it is important to find a professor who will serve as your adviser. The status of your adviser is often more important than that of the school more generally.
    • If at all possible, you should find an adviser whose interests coincide as closely as possible with your own.
    • You should also try to find an adviser who is well known and respected in the field.
  4. Find employment in higher education. Most jobs in etymology will require you to teach on the college level. This is a difficult profession to find employment in. To be successful, you will need a record of original research and teaching on the college level.
    • Only about 40% of new Ph.D.’s in English are able to find employment as a full professor immediately after graduation.[3]
    • Whether you find employment will depend, at least in part, on how strong your record of original research is. To establish this, you will need to present papers at conferences and publish articles in academic journals. You will also be judged on the basis of your dissertation, a large piece that you work on at the end of your Ph.D. program.
  5. Join a professional society. Professional societies hold conferences where you can present papers or learn from the presentations of others. They provide a good opportunity to network with professionals who can help you find employment. They also typically come with a subscription to the society's journal, which will allow you to keep up-to-date with the most recent research in the field.
    • Relevant professional societies include the Institute of Linguists, International Quantitative Linguistics Association, Linguistic Society of America, Linguistics Association of Great Britain, and the Philological Society.
  6. Publish in journals. The Journal of Historical Linguistics is a good venue for academic papers pertaining to etymology.[4] Since etymology is not a big field, you might also want to consider journals in linguistics and English that might be interested in work on historical usages.
    • Prominent linguistics journals include Communication Research, Journal of Memory and Language, Linguistic Inquiry, Language Variation and Change, Discourse Studies, Language in Society, and Mind and Language.[5]
  7. Become a lexicographer. Dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary still employ professionals to refine their definitions and provide additional etymological context. There is not an overwhelming supply of these jobs, but they will be advertised publicly in job forums and newspapers. Watch carefully for such listings and be prepared to find alternative work until such a job opening appears.[6]

Learning to Think like an Etymologist

  1. Learn the history of language. Every language has been influenced by the diverse cultures that it has encountered, whether they were trading partners or conquerors. Learning the history of the language you study will give you a sense for where its words might have originated from.
    • The largest foreign influences on the English language include Latin, French, German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Greek.[7]
  2. Learn more languages. Learning other languages, especially those that have influenced your principal language of study, will help you see how word roots are exchanged between languages. Recognizing these “cognates,” terms held in common across languages, will help you understand the building blocks of your language.[8]
    • Recognizing similarities in grammar and sentence structure can also help you understand how languages have influenced each other.
  3. Read classic literary texts. Etymology is the study of how language evolves over time. An important component of that is seeing how words were used in the past. Finding a new word or a word that is being used in a way that you are unfamiliar with, might send you on a quest to understand that word. That is exactly the sort of research that etymologists perform.[9]
    • Shakespeare could be a good place to start, because he had a huge influence on the development of the English language.[10]
  4. Study roots. Word roots are commonly used in many words, often throughout several languages. Learning roots is essential to understanding how words and languages are related.
    • Word roots are generally prefixes or suffixes which are short combinations of letters at the beginning or end of the word.
    • Some of the most common prefixes include “in-,“ “anti-,” and “sub-.”
    • Some of the most common suffixes include “-able,” “-less,” and “-ness.”[11]
  5. Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The sounds that letters make change over time and across languages. IPA is a more accurate alphabet, included along with most dictionary definitions, that will allow you to understand how a word was actually pronounced. Understanding this sort of real world pronunciation can be essential for recognizing similarities between words.[12]
    • Vernacular (common speech) pronunciation often differs dramatically from the proper written word. This sort of vernacular can be passed from language to language, creating shared origins that might look different on paper, but are actually very similar.
  6. Get a good grasp of grammar. Although etymologists typically focus on individual words, rather than the general structure of language, it is important to get a sense for grammar as well. Grammar can also be exchanged from one language to another. For practical reasons, it is also important to understand grammar because professional etymologists will need to be successful in linguistics programs.[13]
  7. Study etymological dictionaries. Most dictionaries will include some comments on where a word comes from. Some, however, have particularly detailed descriptions of a word’s origins and evolution. The Oxford English Dictionary is the premiere source for studying the origins of words.

Using Etymology

  1. Become a better writer. Understanding etymology will give you a better sense of language that can help you become a better writer. It will be easier to build a bigger vocabulary and remember words if you know how words are related. Understanding what words have meant over time will also give a more nuanced understanding of their definition and help you understand when they are appropriate to use.
    • Utilizing the multiple definitions of words can also allow for word play.
  2. Interpret religious texts. The study of words was originally developed, in large part, to better understand religion. If we don’t properly understand the words that are used in ancient religious texts, we can misinterpret the underlying message. Debates about the proper way to interpret religion often depend heavily upon proving the ancient meaning of words.[14]
  3. Interpret historical and literary texts. As with religious texts, understanding the original meaning of words can be important for understanding historical documents and beloved literary works. Sometimes this sort of research has important practical significance.[15]
    • For example, today many people are debating whether the constitution permits the Republican Ted Cruz to run for President. This debate hinges entirely on how the founder understood the term “natural born citizen.” To determine the answer, scholars have studied how the term was used in debates and contemporary laws.[16]