I'm trying to formalize What is the oldest still-in-use English word? which was closed as vague.

Consider the "age" of a word to be the length of time since it was first used with the (more-or-less) the current meaning and pronunciation.

Obviously, there are lots of words date from Classical Antiquity: Coitus, agenda, and terminus are among thousands of words that would mean the same to Julius Caesar as they do to us.
[Assignment for the under-worked: write a logical, grammatical English sentence consisting entirely of such words; extra credit if it also makes sense in Latin.]

There are even words preserved untouched from ancient Greece (echo, academe, halcyon, stasis).

Are there any word that pre-dates those, such as some word that a Mycenaean potter or a Hittite horseman would say that, I don't know, Matt Lauer would understand perfectly?

My guess is ma, meaning mother, but I have no proof.

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    If you're happy to accept "ma" as a "word", it's probably fair to say it's the oldest word in many languages, and very likely predates anything that we'd really call language in the first place. It's an easy first articulation for babies, and I believe it (or something very similar) occurs in many if not most languages. Jul 31, 2011 at 19:21
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    @FumbleFingers -- I don't know if I would be "happy". What would really make me happy would be a peer-reviewed paper proving that some Homo habilis in Olduvai Gorge crushed the skull of a rival with a rock then climbed atop a termite mound, held the bloody weapon to the sky, and croaked "Monarchy!" but I'm not really expecting that to happen. A man can dream, though. Jul 31, 2011 at 19:30
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    Over thousands of years it's rather unlikely that many words could continue to mean the same thing, if for no other reason than that hardly any concepts (referents) would still "mean" the same thing in the minds of men. But I think "Ma" (as the baby/child's term for it's mother) is one of the select few to qualify on that score. Jul 31, 2011 at 19:36
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    @FumbleFingers: That is not entirely true: a great many of our roots can be traced back up to Prehistoric times. But will Malvolio accept a word that was pronounced somewhat differently, or had different inflectional properties? Jul 31, 2011 at 20:21
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    You want the same pronunciation? That’s not reasonable. We don’t know for sure how things used to be said. And you discount most words of Modern English because of the Great Vowel Shift. Seems like an unreasonable question.
    – tchrist
    May 27, 2012 at 20:38

7 Answers 7


One candidate would be the Hittite word for "water", which was "watar" or "wadar" (there are different views on exactly what the consonant was).

  • We may have a winner. Most people say "watar" or "wadar" today. I'll give it a day if someone comes up with anything older. Utterly irrelevant sidenote : the word otter comes from the same root as water. Aug 1, 2011 at 1:18
  • I'm calling it: water it is. Aug 1, 2011 at 22:01
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    Note that Hittite was Indo-European, as is English. So while English "water" is not descended from the Hittite word, they likely both came from the same source.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 6, 2011 at 22:32
  • How old are Hittite words?
    – Golden Cuy
    Mar 27, 2013 at 22:11
  • @Andrew: Wikipedia: "The language is attested in cuneiform, in records from the 16th (Anitta text) down to the 13th century BC, with isolated Hittite loanwords and numerous personal names appearing in an Old Assyrian context from as early as the 20th century BC." Not to be confused with Hitite Microwave, founded in 1985: "designs and develops high performance integrated circuits (ICs), modules, subsystems and instrumentation"
    – Hugo
    Mar 28, 2013 at 7:14

According to a press release from Reading University, "I", "we", "one", "two" and "three" are among the oldest.

Based on computer models of Indo-European language evolution, they estimate these words to be at least 10,000 years old and possibly as much as 30,000 years.

  • If I understand the press release correctly, "I", "we", "one", "two" and "three" in the local language were among the oldest words -- but not the English words! "One" and "two" a barely older than Chaucer in their current form (and were "on" and "twa" before that). Aug 1, 2011 at 1:13
  • @Malvolio If I understand the press release correctly, together with this article, these are the words that have changed the least from Proto-Indo-European to today. They mention 'water' as well, but say that the numerals appear to be the most change resistant of them all. Aug 1, 2011 at 2:23
  • A thousand years ago, "I" was "ik"; "one" was "on"; "two" was "twa". ("We" and "three" have been stable, for whatever reason.) I'm pretty sure the BBC was misunderstand the actual paper. Aug 1, 2011 at 2:41
  • @Malvolio: I don't think it's the BBC: I think the University of Reading's press release is garbled. Words change as language changes. I think the paper must be talking about replacement, from whatever source. The given words can all be traced back to IE roots, so they have not been replaced.
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 1, 2011 at 10:45
  • @Colin Fine -- That seems like silly too. All words come from other words. "Blog" comes from PIE (from web* meaning "weave", then OE webb, then spider web, when web log, finally blog. Hardly makes "blog" an old word. Aug 1, 2011 at 15:02

Linguistically, that's really not a very good question. A word is not a concrete term, but rather a generalization made by speakers (and not linguists) to distinguish speech units on a pretty shady basis, the most solid of which is actually the writing system (i.e. "a word is what comes between two spaces"), thus, the phrase "cannot" will constitute one word, and the phrase "can not" two. Attempts to use a different basis will most likely drag you into the grey areas of the language, which linguists have a hard time with, such as determining what makes a 'set phrase', and whether it should count as one word or two.

That's not all — other than the elusiveness of the term word in the current language state (synchronous application), there's also the issue of language change over time and between dialects, not less elusive: there's no real way to compare words in ancient Greek or Hebrew to one another or to English words and say 'these are the same words'.

Someone above suggested a rather plausible test of recognition, however it probably still wouldn't do for a scientific test. A few reasons are:

  1. There's no real telling how the words sounded in the ancient languages.
  2. It's often hard to trace the route of a word between distant languages (e.g. if English got it from Greek, from Proto Indo-European, from Latin, etc.).
  3. Even if we did know the old pronunciations, it would almost never be exactly the same, and often less resembling than it seems in the first place. Mind that aside from the consonants and the vowels there are also differences in stress and intonation.

So, although from many aspects it is quite plausible to compare language to a biological system in terms of evolution, it's still not possible to determine 'the oldest word in a language'. A word is new every time it is uttered, and a language changes every day — we can call it by any name we please, but English today is not the same English as yesterday.

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    This is a seriously silly question. Suppose, today, we all decided to borrow the PIE word *wopsa 'wasp', and used it, it would become the oldest word in the world, right? Even though it's been dead for 4000 years? The oldest man in the world has to exist, because everybody dies. However, there is no concept of "life" or "death" for words that is not just a metaphor, so there is no way to say what age a word has. If you count pronunciation, then any English word with a long vowel would be out of the running, because all the long vowels changed during the GVS, for instance. Mar 27, 2013 at 20:39
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    I think you're falling victim to sorites. Just because there are ambiguous cases does not mean a question is unanswerable. An argument about whether can not is a single word doesn't make it difficult to say that kangaroo is a single word, while Our Father who art in Heaven is not. As for the difficulty of pronunciation (both knowing an early pronunciation and deciding whether it qualifies as "the same"), I'm willing to treat that subjectively; I think wadder is sufficiently close to water that it's the current front runner. [continued] Mar 27, 2013 at 23:01
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    As for etymology, it's not part of the question. If an Hittite pronounced his word for kidney as /ˈkɪdni/ by complete coincidence, I'm still counting it. And @JohnLawler, does it help that it was a deliberately silly question? Mar 27, 2013 at 23:02

I think your question needs a bit more work to make it answerable. I'll discuss the difficulties briefly:

Does a word like pharaoh count? The OED gives the etymology "post-classical Latin Pharaon-, Pharao (Vulgate) < Hellenistic Greek Φαραώ (Septuagint) < Hebrew parʿōh < Egyptian pr-ʿo great house" so it must be three thousand years old at least. But many words have etymological ancestors of similar antiquity, for example white is from the Indo-European root *kwidnos, *kwitnos and is likely at least as old. So what counts as a "still-in-use English word?"

Although it's very plausible that ma is ancient (see Larry Trask, Where do mama/papa words come from?), the OED's first citation for the word in English is from 1823 ("E. Moor Suffolk Words at Pa, It is sometimes rather comic to hear a great chuckle-headed lout—paa-ing his father—or maa-ing his mother.") Searching for antedatings is hard because of the many false positives (for example MA meaning "Master of Arts"). So if you find an antedating, be sure to submit it to the OED!

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    Why wouldn't pharaoh count? At least, I'll certainly count it back as far as Φαραώ -- פרעה (parʿōh) is clearly a, ahem, voiceless bilabial plosive and not voiceless labiodental fricative (a /p/ instead of an /f/). Now I'm thinking Torah, which I wouldn't regard a great answer (because it's a proper noun not any residual resentment from Hebrew School), but the book and the name are some 3300 years old. Jul 31, 2011 at 21:46
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    White by contrast wouldn't count. You go up to the average English speaker, hold up a picture of King Tut and say "Φαραώ", he'll say, "Yeah, a pharaoh." Hold up a blank sheet of paper and say "*Kwidnos", he'd think you're insane. And for all I know, he'd be right... Jul 31, 2011 at 21:52
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    So your criteria include the word must be recognizable to an average modern English speaker? You should add that to the question. Jul 31, 2011 at 22:33
  • How would you measure "recognizable" though? In his question Malvolio mentions "words preserved untouched from ancient Greece" and goes on to mention... echo. I've never been to Ancient Greece, but I don't think they pronounced ηχώ as [ˈekəʊ].
    – RegDwigнt
    Jul 31, 2011 at 23:10
  • @Gareth Rees -- my example was Matt Lauer, an exceptionally unexceptional American TV "personality", but TWIAVP, so substitute whomever you want. I was just trying to get at the idea of the modern English vocabulary. Aug 1, 2011 at 1:07

Argh, as in an expression of, well, anything, but usually distaste. Around since the caveman times. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/argh


The word lox hasn’t changed in sound or meaning in 8,000 years according to Gregory Guy (a professor of linguistics at New York University) and a research on tracing word pronunciations. It is also said that the word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived.

“The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

In several thousand years, most words change beyond recognition, like the word wheel, which initially might have sounded “kʷékʷlos.” But there were some remarkable exceptions—like the timeless lox.

“What is interesting about the word lox is that it simply happened to consist of sounds that didn’t undergo changes in English and several other daughter languages descended from Proto-Indo-European,” says Guy.


The etymology of lox from Wiktionary:

From Yiddish לאַקס‎ (laks, “salmon”), from Old High German lahs, from Proto-Germanic *lahsaz (“salmon”), from Proto-Indo-European *laḱs- (“salmon, trout”). Cognate to Icelandic lax, German Lachs. More at lax.

Water (as Colin answered before) is really good also as its Proto-Indo-European origin is *wódr̥. Fire is almost there but the origin Proto-Indo-European *péhwr̥ and Hittite 𒉺𒄴𒄯 (paḫḫur) sounds more like between fire and its cognate pyre.

Here is a related excerpt from the book "Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus (edited by Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries):

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  • One would imagine that water came before lox - first you find the water...
    – Greybeard
    Mar 10, 2020 at 23:11
  • @Greybeard: Possibly, the word for their main food source was earlier and "lox" might have been used as food/fish. This was mentioned in another linguistics book. (Even though, based on the region they live, it was a specific type of fish). In some other languages, the cognate word for "lox" meant fish also. And, it looks like "lox" has the least change in sound trajectories or even spelling.
    – ermanen
    Mar 10, 2020 at 23:20
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    If interjections are allowed, then "Uh" is pretty primaeval.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 10, 2020 at 23:27
  • @Greybeard: I believe it is impossible to trace back the interjections. PIE doesn't have a written record but there are linguistic reconstruction methods. However, I've read an article about the link between ancient cave drawings and early human languages.
    – ermanen
    Mar 11, 2020 at 0:52

I believe cannabis is up there on the list as well. It originates from from the Greek word Kánnabis (κάνναβις), which comes from the Hebrew word קְנֵה בֹּשֶׂם [qěnēh bośem. Then later shortened to קַנַּבּוֹס (qannabbôs)], which means "sweet/aromatic cane". It is mentioned in the Old Testament 5 times and is in recipe an anointing oil recipe.

This is also where the word hemp gets it origins, as it comes from the word hanep, which is a latinization of the Germanic word kænep, which originates from kaneh bosm. It is believed that the Hebrew word originated from the Sumerian word kunibu or qunibu; which, if correct, would make it the oldest word still in use today, circa 20,000 BCE.

  • Unfortunately this answer seems partisan and a misunderstanding. If the origin of the word is Sumerian word kunibu or qunibu and the Hebrew is qěnēh bośem, then the word has changed over the years, and can be traced back in its present form only to the Greek - English is littered with words of Greek origin.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 11, 2020 at 11:31

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