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Ernest Weekley's Threefold Etymology Test

Dr. Weekley, a renowned linguist and etymologist (1865-1954), devised the following test for determining the veracity and accuracy of any given etymology:

  • The etymology must start from the earliest or most fundamental sense of the word
  • The etymology must not violate the recognized laws of sound change
  • Each change in the word, whether in form or in meaning, must be clearly traced.


Below is an alphabetically-sorted list of terms, with their meanings, which you might encounter elsewhere in these pages.

Agglutination (noun) The attachment of an article or other part of speech to a word, as in algebra, where al is the definite article in Arabic.
Aphesis (noun) Shrinkage of a word, as in fender, which was originally defender.
Assimilation (noun) The tendency of a sound to imitate its neighbor, e.g. ampersand from and per se and. The m results from the p it precedes, both being labial consonants.
Cognate (noun & adj.) Words in different languages in which one is derived from the other or both share a common origin are said to be cognate. E.g. French main and English manual, are cognate(s) as both derive from Latin manus, 'hand'.
Conflation (noun) Combining two words into one, such as brunch.  See also portmanteau.
Contamination (noun) The transfer of meaning of one word to another unrelated word which may be commonly associated with it, e.g. due to the phrase old geezer, the American meaning of geezer has come to imply old, and the phrase bald as a coot has made old implicit in the term coot (again, only in American English). Note that in British English, neither geezer nor coot has these connotations.
Dental (noun & adj.) A consonant pronounced while the tongue touches the back if the upper incisor teeth, as in d and t.  The th sound (tongue between the upper and lower incisors) is sometimes called interdental.
Dissimilation (noun) The tendency of a sound to be replaced by another, and this especially occurs with the consonants l, n and r, as in the name Annabel dissimilating to Amabel, from which comes the name Mabel.
Doublet (noun) Two words in the same language which derive from a common source, eg. clerk and cleric.
Folk-etymology   (noun) An etymological phenomenon by which a new word or phrase arises due to the misunderstanding of a word or phrase. Often the resulting word is composed of familiar parts, such as asparagus becoming sparrowgrass.
Fricative (noun & adj.) A consonant that is pronounced with enough constriction of the lips/teeth/mouth to produce friction, the friction being the chief component of the sound, as in f (unvoiced) and v (voiced).
Hobson-Jobson (noun) A foreign word or phrase which is converted into more familiar form, e.g.the
famous old London pub The Elephant and Castle was originally La Infanta de Castille .
Homonym  (noun) Words which have the same spelling but different meanings, such as saw (past tense of see) and saw (the tool) are said to be homonyms. [see also homophone]
Homophone  (noun) Words which have the same sound but different meanings, such as see and sea  are said to be homophones. [see also homonym]
Labial  (noun & adj.) A phoneme pronounced using the lips, as in p and m.  In labio-dental sounds, the upper incisors and lower lip meet.  Labio-velar sounds occur when a sound is made at the velum (soft palate) and the lips are rounded st the same time (w),
Macaronic  (adj.) A word or phrase made from components of two or more different languages.
Metathesis  (noun) The transposition of two adjacent sounds.
Misdivision  (noun) The incorrect division of a noun phrase to create a new word.   Thus, an orange was originally a norange and a whole nuther (whole inserted into another) could result in a new word - nuther.
Onomatopoeia (noun) The formation of a name or word by an imitation of the sound associated with the thing or action designated; this principle as a force in the formation of words in a language; echoism.
Pleonasm  (noun) The repetition of meaning within a word, e.g. causeway, where both cause and way mean 'road'.
Portmanteau (noun and adj.) A word made up of the blended sounds of two distinct words and combining the meanings of both, such as brunch.  The term was first applied by Lewis Carroll to this type of word genesis.
Reduplication  (noun) The repetition of sounds in a word, often with the alteration of a phoneme, eg. hurly-burly, wishy-washy and flim-flam.
Spoonerism  (noun) The transposition of the initial portion of words in a phrase. This process is  named after William A. Spooner (1844-1930), warden of New College, Oxford, who was most famous for this extended form of metathesis. One famous example is his toast: "Let us drink to the queer old dean". He meant, of course: "Let us drink to the dear old queen"
Spurious etymology   (noun phrase) An etymology which, despite its popularity, wide distribution or apparent logic, is false. For instance, although it is commonly believed, posh does not derive from port out, starboard home.
Unvoiced (adj.) Pronounced without vibrating the vocal cords, as the th- in the word thistle.
Voiced (adj.) Pronounced with vocal cord vibration, as in the th- in the word the.

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Last Updated 10/08/06 10:56 PM