The help center says:

This is not the right site for questions about:

Etymology, evolution of the English language, or historical English - see english.stackexchange.com instead.

However, there seems to be some interest among the ELU community (myself included actually) in answering some of these questions here instead of directing learners to ELU.

Leaving the exclusion of etymology in the help center just causes confusion when newer members get the privilege to cast close votes, so if we're going to be OK with answering them instead of migrating them, I think we should remove the bullet and keep the help center as authoritative as possible.

Related discussion: What questions of etymology can be asked here?

Just to clarify, I'm not 100% behind etymology being explicitly on-topic, but in current practice it's not being handled as explicitly off-topic, so I think the help center should be updated to reflect reality.

  • I don't typically ask questions, but I think I agree. Before a definitive answer is given, one has to answer will an ELL encounter such questions? which is a big yes for me, and I'm a learner. However, if this is allowed, there should be an addition to GR close reason . . . Basic questions on etymology, meaning, spelling and pronunciation are off-topic as they should be answered using a dictionary. . . Or etymonline. :)
    – M.A.R.
    Jul 5, 2015 at 22:16
  • You do have a point that most decent dictionaries give some basic etymology, and I agree basic questions should include why looking it up didn't help. @M.A.Ramezani
    – ColleenV
    Jul 5, 2015 at 22:23
  • Actually I have been close voting them, but one I flagged for migration to ELU had a "resolved the flag" comment from a moderator that it was fine to leave it here because the asker was more comfortable asking it here. ell.stackexchange.com/q/60946/9161 I think it's an interesting etymology question, but being the nit-picker I am, it bothers me that the help states something that isn't actually true. @sailboat
    – ColleenV
    Jul 6, 2015 at 20:00
  • Also related meta.ell.stackexchange.com/q/1264/9161 discussion about abolishing the etymology tag.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 6, 2015 at 20:20

2 Answers 2


After thinking about it a bit, I think we should remove the statement that etymology is specifically off-topic, but not add a statement that it is explicitly on-topic.

I think that dealing with etymology questions on a case-by-case basis is the best compromise. I don't think we get so many of them that it's a problem and it seems reasonable to not send learners to ELU in those situations where the question is more about learning English than wanting an in-depth understanding of the origin of a phrase or word.


I'm not convinced etymology itself should normally be directly relevant to the needs of ELL querents.

I certainly don't think questions of the general form Who first "coined" this usage? ought to be addressed on ELL, so it seems to me we're only really concerned with more "traditional" aspects of historical background (i.e. - querent derives from post-classical Latin quaerent from the present participle quaerere, "to enquire"). Which in most cases should be classed as General Reference.

To my mind, what is often useful in the ELL context is to identify the most common or underlying meaning of a term, in order to explain to querents how some current idiomatic usage "makes sense". But it's often the case that the current "underlying" meaning of a term is only peripherally related to its etymological "original" sense, so I don't really think that specific tag is particularly useful here.

  • So if a question is specifically about etymology, in your opinion should it always be closed or just sometimes depending on the content? If it's just sometimes, I think we should remove the statement from the help explicitly excluding etymology questions.
    – ColleenV
    Jul 16, 2015 at 18:11
  • @ColleenV: Never say never. But I can't easily imagine enough questions specifically about etymology (and On Topic in other respects) to justify the tag. Jul 16, 2015 at 18:28
  • Oh I think you're talking about the question I linked, not this question
    – ColleenV
    Jul 16, 2015 at 18:43
  • @ColleenV: I sorta had both in mind. I'm happy with the current wording in the FAQ, and I think the tag shouldn't be necessary. Jul 16, 2015 at 20:19

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