Ever wonder what a particular word means, or where it comes from? We had a great reference question at the Iowa City reference desk today about the meaning and origin of a word – and wanted to share some resources with you for finding a word’s etymology.

The traditional go-to source and most recognized resource on the meaning of words is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). You can find copies of this multi-volume dictionary at both the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City branches. The OED can be a bit tricky to read as entries contain a lot of the technical jargon used by historical linguists and lexicographers – but you will find the date and reference to when a word first appeared in written texts in English (or Old English or Middle English). It can be dense reading, but you’ll learn a lot. An interesting bit of news from the publishing world is that the next version of the OED will likely be online only – so if you cherish the multi-volume print set, we’re sad to break the news to you.

The IPL2 (formerly the Internet Public Library and Librarian’s Internet Index) also has a list of online and print sources for finding etymology – see http://www.ipl.org/div/pf/entry/48468. IPL2  also gives some tips on searching for etymology. For example, if you were seeking the meaning of the origin of the word “library,” you may want to try Googling “library etymology” or “origin of word library.” Another resource not listed by the IPL2 is the Online Etymology Dictionary found at http://www.etymonline.com/sources.php. Although this site is maintained by one individual and does not have the organizational resources that may of the other IPL2 resouces do, it is rigorous in citing sources – so you can search there and then “chain” over to the original source (such as the OED, another well-known dictionary, or some of the Latin dictionaries used).

As always, knowing where your information is coming from is important; this is why scholars use citations, annotations, and references. Happy learning!
—— Nicole Forsythe, Reference Librarian

This image is from the Flickr user Camilla Hoel .