Assignment on the etymological analysis of a field

The goal of this exercise is to gauge the origins of words making up the specialized vocabulary of a particular field of activity. The results often reveal something about the history of the field and, in general, open up many possibilities for comparison and discussion in section.

The assignment asks you to fill out a copy of the etymologyworksheet-1.pdf, according to the following guidelines.


Choose a field of activity. Any field will do as long as it has a specialized or characteristic vocabulary: jazz, gardening, fencing, spelunking, computer science, electronica, literary theory, embroidery, tattoo artistry, chess, crew, Asian cooking,  macroeconomics, skateboarding, or whatever catches your interest.

Generate a list of one hundred words that are used purposefully within the field. (You may wish to refer to a magazine, textbook, websites, etc. to help compile the list.) It is not necessary that the words be exotic or unique, though it's fine if they are; the important thing is that they be characteristic of discourse in that field. You could include some quite ordinary words that acquire a specialized meaning within the field: "note," "bar," or "flat" considered as musical terms, for instance.

Find out the source of each of the one hundred words. This is most quickly done using the Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition online, but any other good etymological dictionary will do, such as The American Heritage Dictionary or The Merriam-Webster's Third. For purposes of the assignment, the sources of words are provisionally divided into the following six categories: Old English, Scandinavian, other Germanic, French, Latin, and all other sources. (Middle English should not be considered to be a source: find the origin prior to Middle English.) If a field has a significant number of words from a language not represented above (like Russian or Persian or Chinese) then you can add that language as another category.

Fill in a copy of the "Worksheet for Etymological Analysis" with the one hundred words you've chosen. Record the percentage of words from each source category in the blanks provided. You may need to reassign the sections on the sheet to a different language from what it has printed; for example, if most of the words in your field come from French, then reassign the large block marked "Old English" to "French."

If a word's history indicates a succession of languages as sources, consider the word as belonging to the most proximate "offshore" source. For example, if an English word was borrowed from French but ultimately comes from a Latin root, consider the word to be from French rather than from Latin. 

Be careful to distinguish cognates from loanwords in the etymologies. A dictionary's etymology may mention Dutch, Gothic, Latin, or Sanskrit (for example) to point out that an English word shares a common Germanic or Indo-European root among one or more other languages. This often implies that the word in question is native to Old English -- not that it was borrowed from one of these other languages. The date of first attestation may help you come to a judgment about ambiguous cases.

You may come across words made up of components (base & affix, or the constituents of a compound word) which have their sources in different languages. In this case you will have to decide how to handle it: just be consistent in what you decide. You may need to gloss such words with a footnote to point out the ambiguity.

You may wish to avoid words that the dictionary indicates are of unknown origin, or which you cannot find in a dictionary.

Finally, write a one-page explanation behind your choice of field, what you expected to find, and what your research actually turned up. Use examples. Bring it to section and be prepared to discuss.

If you have any questions about this assignment, please get in touch with your teaching fellow.