Writing Tools: Etymology

As a writer of fiction, I’m always on the lookout for cool tools for the writing toolbox. I’ve known about this one for a while, but until the last couple of weeks. I’ve never really had much use for it. I refer to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Etymology is the study of word origin and evolution. Most of the words we’re using today have long and colorful histories, with some dating back hundreds of years. For example, “selfie” is a new kid on the block, dates back only a decade or so, and has a fairly straightforward origin, but “self”, from which it derives, dates back several centuries, and has a complex history.

Most of the stories I write are set in and around the present day, but the short story I’ve been working on lately is set firmly in mid Nineteen Century England. I grew up in the late 20th Century; so naturally, I don’t have a firsthand, working knowledge of what flew in the vocabulary back then.


My panic really started in the first draft, when I typed the word “ornithology” into a sentence; it’s important to the story I’m writing that I use that term. It suddenly occurred to me: Did that term exist 150 years ago? My degree was in literature and linguistics, not zoology. For all I knew, the study of birds back in Queen Victoria’s day might have been referred to simply as “bird watching”, or “fowl fancying”. A quick check of the Online Etymology Dictionary put my uneducated-in-the-sciences mind at rest: the term dates back to the 1670s.


Prior to the Internet, a trip into etymology (in most instances) meant a visit to a university library, or some such, and a consultation of the Oxford English Dictionary; the complete, hardback edition… all 20 volumes, 20,000+ pages of it.

Needless to say, the Online Etymology Dictionary website remained open on my desktop throughout the writing of the new story. And a very handy (and interesting) tool it is.

The dictionary been online since 2000 and has more than 50,000 entries in its database. It’s free, too, unlike the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary.


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