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I have always heard the term used in referring to a single word. When browsing questions on this site, I've seen it used applied to entire phrases, and have suppressed the compulsion to edit them and replace the term with origin.

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Interesting question. I'd always thought of it as involving words and morphemes, but perhaps there's more to it. Let's wait for a linguistics geek to weigh in. – Robusto Jul 1 '11 at 18:10
It does seem strange for it to be applied to a phrase or idiom, but works just as well for alternatives like 'origin' or 'provenance'. – Mitch Jul 1 '11 at 18:43
up vote 14 down vote accepted

Merriam-Webster defines etymology thusly:

the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language [emphasis mine]

The key phrase there is "linguistic form". Words and morphemes are linguistic forms, but so are sentences and phrases. Sentences and complex phrases are not fixed enough to be really studied in an etymological sense, but common phrases, idioms, and other fixed forms are, so I see no problem with applying the term "etymology" to those things. Furthermore, the boundaries between affix, clitic, word, and phrase are very murky, and I don't see any reasonable criterion for allowing the first three to have etymologies, but not the fourth.

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I was going to post an answer but I guess a comment is more appropriate... I agree with you about fixed phrases, but every source I checked never mentions them, only words, (so goes for the etymology of the word etymology) even in my italian dictionary... Just wanted to bring this out :) – Alenanno Jul 1 '11 at 18:26
I was also going to post an answer - which would have been exactly the sentiments of the final sentence, only probably not so well expressed. But spared that task, I'll just add that on average "etymology" suggests a more complex linguistic history (often including many changes over time), whereas "origin" more often makes me think of some single relevant context and "first recorded usage". That's only a personal tendency though, and I wouldn't say there's much meaningful difference between "origin" and "etymology" in practice. – FumbleFingers Jul 1 '11 at 21:25
Linguistic forms still seems a bit vague, and I'm not sure that just the single source is ideal, but I agree with your conclusions. Thanks! – Bryan Agee Jul 2 '11 at 14:26

Here are my two coins:

I looked up the dictionary, and etymology is defined thus:

— n , pl -gies
1. the study of the sources and development of words and morphemes
2. an account of the source and development of a word or morpheme

So, etymology is used on individual words, roots, prefixes, suffixes, affixes, etc. But not on phrases, idioms, or expressions.

For phrases, idioms, or expressions, I would use:


To sum up, for me, etymology is only used for individual words and morphemes, while origin is used for phrases, idioms, and expressions.

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What is 'the dictionary'? Is it bigger than OED? – Edwin Ashworth May 19 '15 at 21:37

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