Extreme etymology

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Last week, there was an interesting Ask MetaFilter thread about how to find "a list of all the English words that can be traced back to a given root word" ("Word histories and dirt lions") , in which Language Hat helpfully linked to the American Heritage Dictionary's "lists of Indo-European and Semitic roots" as a partial answer.

Those interested in such things — and the response to Don Ringe's recent posts here shows that there are many of you — might also want to take a look at some of the explanatory material from the same source: Cal Watkin's article "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" and the "Guide to Appendix I", John Huehnergard's "Proto-Semitic Language and Culture" and the "Guide to Appendix II".

The development of the AHD included a number of interesting innovations, including these exercises in "extreme etymology". It's too bad that the vagaries of the publishing business and/or the realities of the dictionary market have left it without much on-going editorial investment.

The dictionary of Indo-European roots, whatever its other uses, has value as a source of found poetry. The first entry, in alphabetical order, is ad-, which has given us at, atone, twit, ado, adjuvant, aid, amount, and paramount. The second is ag-, which has given us agony, ambiguous, demagogue, essay, and squat, among many others. The NEXT- links will lead you through the others, all the way down to yeug- (yoke, jugular, adjust, joust, junta, jostle, and yoga), yewes- (justice), yewo- (zein), and yu- (you).


  1. Don said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    I came across this site a while ago:


    It used to have lists of foreign root words and the English words that came from them, but I guess the owner has taken those lists down and published a book. Some of the lists can still be found in the Wayback Machine:


  2. david waugh said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Eric Partridge's "Origins" is useful. It's mostly an etymological dictionary but it does have longer articles in which large numbers of words are linked together. It still seems to be in print.

  3. DShpak said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Wow, this is something I've wondered about myself several times. In particular, I casually study Old English, and often find myself wondering what a particular OE word turned into in Modern English (or if it got lost entirely). Sometimes it's fairly obvious ("cniht" –> "knight"), other times, not so much. I've learned some of the connections by accident, when reading a word's etymology in a dictionary. I find these connections not only interesting in their own right, but also an aid to remembering vocabulary (if you realize that "næddre" became "adder", it's easier to remember that it means "snake").

  4. Literally Etymologically | Poetry & Contingency said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

    […] account for why Mark Liberman thinks Watkins's Dictionary of Indo-European Roots 'has value as a source of found poetry', and maybe also why etymologies are so interesting in the first […]

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