Exploratorium Magazine Online: The Evolution of Language
Volume 23, Number 1
Become A Word Historian




St. Jerome
St. Jerome, patron of translators, searching for just the right word.



You can use an ordinary dictionary to find extraordinary histories of words. This information is packed between the two brackets [ ] right before the definition of the entry word. (For an even richer experience, explore the venerable twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary with its wealth of detail.)

To Do And Notice

Look up the word window. You'll find that it comes from the Middle English (ME) windowe, which came from the Old Norse (ON) vindauga, which itself was formed from the two Old Norse words vindr, which meant "wind," and auga, which meant "eye." So window once meant "wind-eye," a poetic description appropriately suggesting a window's function of letting in both air and light.

Find the history of other words. Look up words you've been curious about, or browse through the dictionary until a word catches your interest. Below are some words that Exploratorium staff members think have interesting histories.

book | poet | handsome | see | money | husband
| physics | mathematical

Here are some helpful tips:
  • The earlier forms of a word are given in italics, and their definitions, when different from the meaning of the modern English form, are given in ordinary (roman) type
  • Here are some of the dictionary's most common abbreviations:

    OE - Old English, 7th to 12th centuries
    ME - Middle English, 12th to 15th centuries
    ON - Old Norse
    OHG - Old High German
    MF - Middle French
    L - Latin
    Gk - Greek
    Skt - Sanskrit

  • The abbreviation fr stands for "from" and indicates that a word came from an earlier form. The phrase akin to is used before words that are related to the original entry, although they are not its direct ancestors.
  • The words more at direct you to another dictionary entry where related words will be found.


What's Going On?


Many English words have their origins in other languages. By finding words with similar sounds and meanings in other languages, it's often possible to trace the history of a word back through many centuries. The history of a word, called its etymology, is often a good clue to its most essential meaning.

You can find additional explanations about the information in an entry in the front of your dictionary. Enjoy your discoveries!



The following Web Sites are good online resources to use for this project:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: WWWebster Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: WWWebster Thesaurus

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