The word provenance is used in the sense of denoting the origin of a thing or things. However, can it be used in the sense of asking about the origin of an expression or a word?

Can you ask about "the provenance of", for instance, the term "turn-key", or would that be inappropriate and we should only ask about "the etymology of" the expression?

  • 1
    In that sense it is basically a synonym for "etymology", though I'm sure that there are some differences in "shading". But both words are rare outside of academic circles, so most people would not be especially sensitive to any differences.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 25, 2015 at 12:19
  • Only single words have etymologies, not phrases or expressions. You perhaps means origin or history.
    – tchrist
    Jul 25, 2015 at 12:22
  • No it is not an abuse. 'Etymology' is the technical term for the history of a word, and 'provenance', while an SAT word, is more informal or let's say metaphorical. @HotLicks Yes, but 'provenance' is also used outside of those areas, such as auctioning where the history of ownership is important and called 'provenance'
    – Mitch
    Jul 25, 2015 at 14:44

1 Answer 1


AHD defines provenance as:

  • the history of the ownership of an object, especially when documented or authenticated. Used of artworks, antiques, and books.

The term is actually used to refer to he origin of words, mainly in academic contexts:

From Education, Conviviality, and the Formation of Roman Readers:

  • .. be reacting against what he sees as excessive permissiveness in these sections— but the practice of learning the provenance of words would have been standard whether the teacher was advising students to avoid them, as Quintilian does, ...

From Unquiet Understanding: Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics:

  • The etymological provenance of words is not under our control. The weight of a term's received meaning can sometimes take command of what we intend by it. Whatever we say will be inflected by the incalculable nuances and associations of ...

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