ENG G301/D600: History of English Language

Spring 2011

Professor Fleming


Etymology Project

“Webster’s Dictionary defines project as a collaborative enterprise, frequently involving research or design, that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.”


One aim of this project is to get you to never (again?) write a sentence like the above, and cringe every time to see one like it in the future.  More importantly, this project will teach you how to use and understand a dictionary effectively and responsibly.  Additionally, you will learn the particular history of a word, and the process by which that history is uncovered..



1.     Pick a word on our wiki, put your name after the word you want. 

DUE online: before class Tuesday, Jan 25

2.     Research the word (from the resources I tell you to use on the bibliography)

3.     Write a 3-5 page paper detailing the etymology, history, meanings, uses, and misconceptions of your word.

4.     Post your paper online on our class wiki.  DUE Thursday, February 17

5.     Read and evaluate each other’s projects (anonymously).  DUE Thursday, February 24


Further particulars:

1. Pick a word (duh).  First come first served.


2. Research the word:

Look up the word in as many dictionaries you can find; certainly all the ones on the bibliography.  You must start with the OED and W3 (Webster’s Third International).  Read these definitions and understand them.  Take notes: trace the historical development(s) of the word.  Look at the etymology of the word: understand this (look up any abbreviations you don't know).  Ask me for help if you need it).  Follow up hyperlinks and internal references.  Look at the possible spellings of the word.  Now take all this information and explain it, in your own words.  Perhaps start with the etymology and then explain the development of the word, paying attention to dates of citations.

EXAMPLE (coming soon)

Now look up your word in additional resources: see bibliography.  Naturally, not all words will be covered in all sources.  If you are unsure whether your word will appear in a given resource, CHECK!  Begin with the other reputable general dictionaries, and look for discrepancies among the dictionaries.  Do the etymologies, definitions, and order of senses concur with that in OED and W3?   Are there any editorial comments regarding the usage of this word?  Is it considered informal, colloquial, vulgar?  Note the exact words each dictionary uses.  Is there controversy about the word’s use?  If so, how does its historical usage (which you've discovered in the OED) compare with the dictionaries’ recommendation?  See if the historical dictionaries—Samuel Johnson's and Noah Webster's—define your word.  Why or why not, do you suppose? 

If appropriate, now look up your word in the dictionaries of slang / swearing. How do the etymologies in these sources compare to those in the OED?  Do these resources contain a greater range of definitions?  Do they disagree in any way with any of the general dictionaries?

Now you should have a good formal, academic handle on your word: now it's safe for you to venture onto the internet.  Google your word, with an eye towards discovering popular perceptions of its etymology, history, “proper” usage, and meaning.  (search string examples: fuck origin, fuck etymology; decimate meaning, decimate usage, etc.).  We’re partly looking for popular solutions which are discordant with the academic resources.  However, we are also interested in discovering how likely a Google (or comparable) search is of coming up with a correct answer.  Therefore keep track of what search engine you use, what search terms you use, and what number result shows up.  Also take note of interesting websites which provide good or bad information.  (And don’t forget to copy addresses!) 

Also check urbandictionary,  snopes, and wikipedia . 

Snopes is a debunking website, which will hopefully counter some of the fantastic word origins you may have found.  Urbandictionary is a user-generated dictionary which ranks definitions by popularity.  Note the most popular definition, the ratio of “thumbs up” to “thumbs down,” and other noteworthy definitions.  For slang words, these resources may give us insight into popular perceptions of a word.  For seemingly non-slang words, you may discover a slang usage you do not know of.  See if Wikipedia deals with the history of your word, and how accurately it does so.

If you want to do some original research (or double check the OED), try using Google Books Ngram Viewer, which allows you to chart the use of a word over time.  Beware though, Google Books is far from perfect.  Some thoughts here.


3. Write a paper

Take all the information you’ve been absorbing (or copy and pasting) and present it in clear, polished academic prose.  Your audience (and evaluators) will be your classmates and me.  


Helpful hints:

·        When discussing a word as a word, put it in italics or quotation marks. 

Runt is a ridiculous word, which bears no etymological relation to run.”

·        When using items from the bibliography, use the short titles I have provided.   You need not provide a bibliography of any of these items.


Word List (sign up for your word on our wiki)


If there is a particular word (not on this list) which you would like to investigate, ask me

·                    ain't

·                    awesome

·                    bitch

·                    black

·                    brassiere

·                    cock

·                    cool

·                    cop

·                    corn

·                    crap

·                    cunt

·                    data

·                    decimate

·                    dick

·                    disinterested

·                    dive/dove

·                    dress

·                    enormity

·                    fee

·                    fuck

·                    gay

·                    genius

·                    gentle

·                    girl

·                    happy

·                    history

·                    holy

·                    hooker

·                    mad

·                    mystery

·                    nature

·                    naughty

·                    nice

·                    niggardly

·                    none

·                    obnoxious

·                    putz

·                    sad

·                    schmuck

·                    shit

·                    silly

·                    slut

·                    sneak/snuck

·                    suit

·                    swag

·                    twat

·                    virtue

·                    wan

·                    watch

·                    wop