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What Does an Etymologist Do?

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  • Written By: Britt Archer
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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The word etymology dates to the 14th century in France and is derived from a Greek term meaning “true sense.” The word itself is a fitting description for the field that teases out the origin, history and changing meanings of words. A person who has ever wondered where words come from or how and why they've changed over the years may consider training as an etymologist.

One of the main etymologist requirements is a love of words and a desire for the truth. Tales about the origins of words abound and sometimes these tales turn out to be true, but it is part of the job to tease out fact from fiction even at the risk of discrediting a widely-accepted story. Etymologists must be prepared to delve into the jumble of world languages in order to discern the originating language or languages of the word as well as the time and place where the word first appeared.

Working as an etymologist begins with education and training. A degree in linguistics, philology, language studies or another field directly relating to language is preferred in the field, although those with a similar passion may also work as educators, writers or editors and obtain the necessary training and credentials required for those fields. A post-graduate degree is not necessary but preferred by most employers. Those exploring the field can expect to undergo between four and eight years of schooling in order to find a job.

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There is no one standard job description and each job is different. An etymologist working for a university may work teasing out the roots of obscure words in an ancient manuscript, while someone employed by a private firm may be working with computer software developers to make programming languages that resemble human speech patterns. Etymologist duties vary as widely as the job description, with each job requiring etymologists to work in a slightly different capacity.

The work is not physically demanding. Most etymologists work indoors in an office setting. It is usually possible to keep regular office hours. Interaction with other people varies from virtually nonexistent to almost constant, depending upon the exact job description. An etymologist working as a linguistics teacher will have more social interaction than someone working on deciphering a word or phrase.

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