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Every word has a story behind it. For example, "goof" derives from the French word "goffe" meaning awkward or stupid. "Macaroon", the cookie, comes to us via Middle French from the colloquial Italian "maccarronne," a cake made of ground almonds. And ourword "pygmy" comes to us via the Latin word "pygmaeus," which in turn derived from the earlier Greek word "pygmaios" which meant dwarfish, and "pygmaios," in turn, came from the Green measure a pygme, the distance from the elbow to the thumb.

The story of a word's history is its etymology, not to be confused with entomology. Entomology is the study of insects. Etymology is the study of word origins. Unabridged dictionaries precisely summarize a word's origins in coded passages usually contained in italics at the end of the entry. In order to understand an etymology, it's important to know that the evolving English language has been arbitrarily divided into three periods.

The period from Germanic origins to roughly the Norman conquest is designated Old English. All English spoken and written from 400 A.D. to 1000 is considered Old English. Unfortunately, Old English is essentially incomprehensible to the average reader today, even incorporating several letters that do not exist in Modern English.

All English spoken and written from 1000 to 1500 is designated Middle English. Middle English is much more accessible to the modern speaker of English; a prime example of Middle English is Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."

And finally, all English spoken and written from 1500 to the present is designated Modern English. Thus, we see that Shakespeare's writings, despite their forbidding diction, are considered early Modern English.

In addition to having a grasp of the historic periods of the English language, those wishing to understand etymologies must also be aware that Latin civilization, i.e, that of Caesar, Suetonius, and Marcus Aurelius, follows the apex of Greek civilization, i.e., that of Plato, Socrates, and Thucydides. In other words, Greek roots precede Latin roots.

In order to understand an etymology, one must first ask during what period the word under consideration entered the English language and from where. Thus, in examining the story behind "dachshund," the reader would see this: (G. dachs badger+hund dog). In other words "dachshund" entered English in the Modern Period directly from German. In German two words were compounded--dachs and hund. In short, a dachshund was originally bred as a German dog for hunting badgers.

Or let's take the case of the word "dog." The dictionary entry would look like this: (ME docca, OE dogca). Interpreting this, the reader would conclude that dog, as we might expect knowing that dogs have been around a long time, entered the language in the Old English period where it was spelled dogca, but meant dog (this we know because there is no indication of an alternative meaning). It then evolved in the Middle English period into docca, still meaning dog, prior to entry into Modern English where the spelling again evolved into its current version.

And finally let's consider the word "contraband." Contraband is, of course, items forbidden from importation; for example, soldiers are not allowed to bring contraband with them into the United States--drugs for instance. Examining the etymology of the word, the reader would see this: (F, fr. It contrabando, fr. L contra against + bando proclamation ) Observing where the commas fall and being careful to distinguish small fr. (from) from big F. (French) one would determine that the word's story is this:
"Contraband" entered Modern English from French where it was spelled the same as in English and meant the same thing. "Contraband" entered French via Italian where it was spelled contrabando, but meant the same thing it now does. "Contraband" entered Italian from Latin (after all Latin is the parent language of Italian) from two words that were fused. "Contra" meant against, as, for example, in "contraceptive" and "contradict"; and "bando" meant proclamation. Hence the Latin roots of "contraband" are quite logically contra and bando, i.e, that which there is a proclamation against.

In trying to understand etymologies, it is important to know that the majority of English words trace their origins back to Old English and Germanic roots or to Latin and Greek roots. On occasion, however, a word leaped into English in the Modern Period directly from another language. For instance, "alligator" entered English directly from contact between English speakers and Spanish speakers in Florida. In Spanish "alligator" was el ligarto--the lizard. In other words, speakers of English essentially borrowed the Spanish word, but corrupted it into its modern English form.

On occasion, too, an etymology will become complex, urging a reader to compare equivalent forms in various languages; this is signified by the abbreviation "cf." And, in some cases the dictionary will reveal that a word's root is "equiv." or equivalent to a root word in an ancient tongue. Finally, too, there will be an occasional etymology that will be essentially baffling, but have no fear, by and large the essential derivation of most words is fairly transparent.

In summary, every word has a story behind it. Modern unabridged dictionaries, i.e., those with a claim to completeness, do an excellent job of conveying those stories in brief, coded entries. With a little detective work, a dictionary reader can unearth a number of hidden nuggets of linguistic knowledge.