Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Alright, today, I’d like to have a very brief discussion about two words that are often confused in everyday speech: Etymology and Entomology.


Pronounced “eh-ta-MAH-lo-gee” (/ɛtəmalədʒi/), Etymology is the study of the origin of words. Many words end up in English after traveling through several languages and permutations, and often, the etymology of words can be fascinating.

For instance, according the Oxford American Dictionary, the etymology of the word “Orange” is as follows:

ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French orenge (in the phrase pomme d’orenge), based on Arabic nāranj, from Persian nārang.

Sometimes, words will be incorporated into other languages at different stages in its evolution. Those of you who speak Spanish will likely recognize “Naranja” as a pretty clear derivation from the Arabic. However, the modern Russian word for orange, “aranzhevii”, is likely an import from later in the word’s evolution, perhaps from the French.

Keep in mind, though, not all words have a clear etymology. For instance, there’s still considerable debate about the origin of the word/phrase “OK” (see here, here, and the Wikipedia page).

Etymology is a really fascinating area. I’ve posted many times about different word origins (here, here and here, to start), and I’ll likely continue to do so, as they’re usually pretty interesting. Giving word origins can also be quite an entertaining party trick, too, if you’re sufficiently nerdy.

Entomology (pronounced “en-ta-MAH-lo-gee” (/ɛntəmalədʒi/)), on the other hand, is the study of insects. That’s right. Creepy, crawly insects.

Although the Wikipedia article on the subject will be able to tell you much more about this science, my main point is that Entomology is very, very different from etymology.

“So, how does the study of insects pertain to this phrase…?”

Very frequently, people will ask me for the “entomology” of a word, and it can be quite difficult sometimes to avoid discussing how the word relates to insects. I understand that they’re both unusual words, and I also understand that they’re pretty similar, but at the same time, I beg you, please note the difference.

Etymologies are a truly fascinating subject, and can really help a person grow closer to the language they speak. I’m sure that Entomology is cool too, although personally, I prefer suffixes to centipedes. That’s just me, though.

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