My question here is What does ELL want us to do with questions about Historical English and about Etymology? The Help Center page explicity says they are offtopic. Yet some users, including some moderators, think they are not off-topic.

To me, the site needs consistency with regard to etymology and Historical English and what the Help Center says. The Etymology tag is still here, almost two years after two questions about the tag have been posted. And the Help Center Page What topics can I ask about here? quite clearly says

This is not the right site for questions about:

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

For example, I voted to closevote Where was the “sticking place”?, originally titled 'Where was William Shakepeare's "sticking place"?' Despite the edit to the title, and the removal of the etymology tag, I interpreted the question to be about the meaning of the word in Shakespeare's time, because it contained (and still contains) these questions:

What did William Shakespeare mean by sticking place?


What, or where was this sticking place in Shakespeare's time?

Nevertheless the question remains open.

The site needs to decide what to do about the etymology tag, and in the case of the sticking place question, what to do with questions that users see as being about Historical English. Because as a user of the site I'm confused.

  • 3
    I personally find it strange that the site should "reject" questions about the origin and past/historical usage of words. The site is explicitly for learners of English but also for teachers of English who might find etymology and related issues quite helpful for their class activities.
    – user5267
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 16:54
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    This site is primarily for English learners, many of whom read historical English. I don't see much point in making the help center guidance too much of a sticking point. All English must be interpreted according to context, part of which is the era it was written in. Personally, I upvoted the question; it's a model question in that it is well-formed and shows ample research.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 17:15
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    Well, thank you for bring this to the attention of meta. And I do mean this most sincerely, I really really do, this is the correct venue for these matters, and not badgering users in comments as some are wont doing...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 17:37
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    This is an important question. The Help Center, to which we refer new learners, tells them that such questions are Off Topic. If it provides information that is orthogonal to real policy, why is it there? If the information is inaccurate (as here) why don't we change it? I raised a similar concern from an apposite position (and spent some time on the Quixotic task of writing new text) in Proposed Help Center text. We could at least equivocate: "Unless your question fascinates some of us, this is not the right site for questions about..." Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:08
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    @Mari-LouA I think your question is fascinating, myself, but on a site where a number of readers are still learning to conjugate the regular verbs, I'm not sure it delivers its greatest potentional benefit, or receives its best potential answer. I wouldn't downvote such a question, but I do think it would have been a lot more fun at ELU. (When you mention "badgering," I can't help thinking of the immortal Thurber's masterpiece.) Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:15
  • @P.E.Dant - I wouldn't underestimate ELL potentialities for good answers to articulated questions. My answer is probably not that good, but I am sure that you and a good number of other regular ELL users could supply more valuable answers to the question.
    – user5267
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:26
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    I want to make clear that I don't think we should close the "sticking point" question in particular although there are other etymology questions I would want to close. I agree with J.R. about the context and I think maybe my opinion in an earlier comment came across more black and white than it actually is. I would like us come to some sort of consensus and then fix the Help Center text so we don't have to keep explaining how something explicitly off-topic in the Help Center is only sort-of off topic in practice depending on the circumstance.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 20:47
  • +1 @ColleenV aye aye aye! This is what I in my rambling and unfocussed way was going for in my earlier question. Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 21:21
  • @xxxxxx I'm so sorry if you interpreted my comment as disparaging to your answer. I didn't intend that at all; it's very well-researched and written, and I wasn't even thinking about it when I wrote the comment. I meant that the question is the sort that can spawn a lot of interesting speculation and historical digging, etymological theoretifying, and stuff like that, which I find very diverting, but which may not much benefit our core NNL target. Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 5:56
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    @P.E.Dant - what I meant, referring to my answer, is that there are ELL users who could have posted other good answers, anyway regarding how useful etymology could be for NNLs, I agree with what J.R. says in his post and I don't think it is that far from what NNLs might be interested in. Take the expression "How do you do" for instance, which, believe me, may sound as strange to a NNL as it sounds natural to you. It is quite natural to ask "what does it mean"? Where does its idiomatic meaning and usage come from? That would require etymological research NNLs, I guess, would appreciate.
    – user5267
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 6:35
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    @xxxxxx For all I know that question has been asked, but if it hasn't been, you should ask it. It is indeed an interesting question, and over the years, even among native English speakers, has resulted in amusing analyses and responses. Personally, as a stammering youth, I once inquired of Lauren Hutton: "How do you do?" The ravishing Ms Hutton responded, with her salacious grin: "How do I do what?" Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 7:49
  • I find it amusing that the only time help center or its text is mentioned is when there is a dispute to be had. Really, whoever reads help center anymore?
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 10:36
  • @Rubisco Why would we talk about the help center text when everything is OK with it ? It's sort of like how the news doesn't report "No murders in Smalltown today. Check back in tomorrow for an update on the continued absence of bad things happening!"
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 14:01
  • @Colleen nothing is okay with it. It misses the most crucial info an ELLer should know before entering this land, and the most crucial info an ELLer should know when they get around to knowing this land. Who, really, has been able to get help from the help center? No one. It's just a bunch of set questions with answers to show off to people coming from Google. (Not that I'm blaming anyone. No SE has good help center content, which ideally should be much more localized than a bunch of lines and words changed)
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 14:14

3 Answers 3


In light of the OP's misgivings, I have modified my question, and I am confident that the question complies fully with ELL's standards.

The first request has not been changed.

The second request is now firmly on topic; and a third question, more contemporary, but still closely related, has been added.

  • What did William Shakespeare mean by sticking place?

Its meaning in Macbeth: be firm, unwavering, is radically different from today's sticking point.

  • What, or where is this sticking place today?
  • Is there any difference in meaning between sticking place and sticking point?

I am at pains to point out that the idiom "sticking point" is used currently. It is easily found in any dictionary, and as a vocabulary item I would class it between level B2 and C1, which is roughly equivalent to 6.5-7.0 on the IELTS scale, according to the CEFR guidelines.

What to do about Etymology questions?

I would suggest editing the question, many users ask about a term's ethnicity or origin because they want to have a deeper understanding of its meaning today.

However, if the enquired terms, or expressions, are indeed archaic and/or obsolete than perhaps the mods on ELL could migrate those specific questions to EL&U. As of today the only venue for migration available for users is meta. For more details, please see: Should we have an official ELL -> ELU migration path?

What to do with Historical English questions?

I've recently discovered that there is no Historical English tag on ELL. In addition, it is not listed as a synonym of the tag.

Users whose questions specifically ask "What is the origin of [ WORD ] ?" are in reality asking about etymology, a linguistic term that many learners of English (and even some native speakers) are largely unfamiliar with.

Here is a shortlist of four questions asking for the historical background of certain words, idioms, and of English grammar. None of these questions were tagged etymology. None were closed for being off topic.

  1. Meaning and origin of "Drop dead"
  2. What is the origin of the expression 'pull a fast one'?
  3. What is Latin Grammar?
  4. Visualization or visualisation

    What should ELL do with these questions?

    • Should they all be closed for being off topic? (If, indeed they are off topic)
    • Should they be migrated to EL&U?
    • Should ELLers count their blessings, and keep these good questions open on their site?

CEFR = Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
IELTS = International English Language Testing System


The metaquestion mentioned questions about both etymology and historical English. The Help Center says questions about both are off-topic. Despite this fact, a range of meta-answers has been given regarding etymology. I guess I agree with snailplane when she says:

questions about etymology are off-topic.

However, giving etymology in answers should be accepted and expected in situations where it helps make usage or meaning clearer.

Another moderator (J.R.) comments to the above with

I'd be able to accept this more had you written, “Therefore, most questions about etymology would be off-topic.” It seems conceivable that some etymological questions could be written – questions that would be very appropriate for this site and would be of general interest to the community at large.

However, this is in direct contradiction to the Help Center, and as an average user I look to the Help Center to be my guide; this is the same guide we point users to, including when we tell them why we are closevoting a question. Thus, with mods "in contention" with one another, I can only go by the Help Center, no matter how interesting a question may be.

As for historical English, I can only take the same approach.

Thus, I expect that Questions about Etymology and Historical English are offtopic here but ontopic at English Language and Usage (ELU).

In addition, I would ask that users not fault another user for downvoting a question that appears to be offtopic as clearly stated in the Help Center.

  • I would hope that however a user votes in good faith would be respected by the rest of the community regardless of whether they agree with the vote. Everyone should feel free to express their viewpoint as long as they do it constructively.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 29, 2016 at 22:12
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    @Alan Carmack - it appears you are wearing eye-blinders and you just don't want to consider the positive effects that access to etymological and historical aspects of the English language might have for learners. When the rule was set years ago ELL was a smaller and probably more basic community. It has now become much wider and more diversified and as a consequence I think a partial or total change to that rule should be seriously taken into account.
    – user5267
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 6:36
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    This discussion shouldn't be personal, so let's not make it personal. A question being off-topic is not a judgement of the quality of the question. I want folks to feel free to vote their conscience, so I support the idea that people should be able to vote in good faith without getting picked apart for it. If you want to down-vote this answer because you disagree with it, you should without qualms.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 12:39
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    @xxxxxx And I removed those comments because they weren't constructive. You should flag those sorts of comments for the moderators and we will handle it. What happened on ELU stays on ELU as far as I'm concerned (and I'm certain the other moderators are with me on this) as long as folks aren't making the same mistakes. We are a different community even though EL&U is our sister site and there is some overlap in community members. I understand that there are some hard feelings on both sides here and things got a little bit heated, but it is time to let it go.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 30, 2016 at 13:49

Surprisingly the OP, Alan Carmack, is not beyond answering historical questions himself, and especially if they are contained in a Shakespearian play. In fact, very recently the OP provided a very good answer to the question

What does "honorable parts" mean?

The expression "honourable parts" is taken from a line in Romeo and Juliet's tragedy

Day, night, month, year! My constant care has been to have my only child worthily matched. And here I find an educated man of equal birth with honorable parts, with fine estates and handsome to behold, and what is my reward?

which is an adaption of the original text, and also cited in the answer

A gentleman of noble parentage,
Of fair demesnes, youthful, and nobly ligned,
Stuffed, as they say, with honourable parts,
Proportioned as one's thought would wish a man;
And then to have a wretched puling fool,
A whining mammet, in her fortune's tender,

Alan Carmack explained that It is an archaic or rare usage, he continued by citing the OED and we learned about its following entry: “5. archaic Abilities.” which hints at a somewhat historical usage. My question, which prompted the OP's request, was also prompted by a line from William Shakespeare play, Macbeth. It was deemed off topic, so much so, I modified the question until it complied with the frequently cited "Help Centre".

Recently, Alan Carmack and four other users, no doubt persuaded by his acerbic comment left at the bottom of my question, closed a question of mine which I had the audacity and temerity to tag☺—wait for it—.

McCoy, decoy, and coy (visible to users with 10K)

I decided to delete the question, despite it being reopened by a mod, because it was a real pain having to defend it against another user who criticised my free choice and not prohibited by any Stack Exchange rule, to explain why the question was on topic in an edit.

This is a Q&A site, not a forum, chat, general education site, place to list facts, or place to "show off." So unless there is a clear, focused, specific question not answerable with simple Google searches (which is what I did), it's not appropriate even if it's funny, entertaining, informative, or beneficial. Meta is for "questions about questions" and you should have asked this there. Moderators do pay attention to that even if the general audience only rarely goes in there. @LawrenceC

Apparently, I was "showing off". Good to know. Is that why two users downvoted a question that was asking if the noun form coy ever existed? Is that why a user deleted his answer? Perhaps, he didn't want to be tainted with the same tar brush.

The question was:

I was wondering whether all three terms were related or coincidental. In addition, although the noun coyness exits, the noun coy itself doesn't seem to be listed in any of the online dictionaries I checked, is it an archaic term? If it did exist, what did the noun used to mean?

If I had had access to the OED, I would not have asked my question in the first place. Please note that the terms McCoy, decoy and coy (ADJ) are not obsolete, archaic, or even considered rare in the English language.

I would; therefore, strongly suggest that Mr Carmack, and the other user who also voted to close my question but within days posted an answer that consisted solely of citations from etymonline, take a good long hard look in the mirror and see the planks of wood that are wedged firmly in their eyes before pointing out the speck of sawdust in my questions, and in other users' posts that do not conform to their view or hoity-toity judgements.

P.S. FYI I did not downvote any of Alan Carmacks' three answers yesterday. Perhaps the mods could look into the matter.

P.S.S. Am I allowed to post questions that delve into the past meanings of a term? Am I allowed to answer similar questions in the future, without someone telling me that I can't?

  • What exactly is it that you want a mod to look into Mari-Lou? If there's something that needs our attention, please flag it. That's the easiest way to make sure that all four of us are aware of what is going on.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 14:52
  • @ColleenV so you think that's the only thing that needs to be straightened out or looked into? You don't see any hypocrisy? Users who accuse of others of cheating, of posting questions under a different username, accusing other users of wanting to circumvent the rules, whose answers are not original, but when a native speaker cites directly from etymonline no one says a word.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 16:37
  • Who insinuate that someone (i.e. me) is untrustworthy, or that I am showing off. Users who post infantile comments that are more appropriate on the playground than on a Q&A website, users who sneak in all the previous usernames of someone in a comment, to imply....what? That the user is a chameleon, "fake", and yet when I flagged that comment (it was not directed at me) it was declined twice. So, this time I'm saying that three of Carmack's answers were downvoted, that looks suspicious behaviour to me. Instead of flagging, I've brought it to everyone's attention.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 16:37
  • -1 The question about honorable parts is asking about a 2013 usage. That's hardly 'historical English' @ColleenV Nor does the marking of a word as archaic mean that it cannot be used in current English. Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 17:27
  • I am still laughing hard at the absurd justification that Alan Carmack comes up with. It's a hilarious. Delete this comment as well. No, lets see if this observation will stick. So, if a word is cited in a film in 2013, based on a play written in the 1600s. that makes it contemporary and "on topic" for ELL. The fact that Alan Carmack himself said that the word's original meaning is archaic, and rare is beside the point. You can bet your bottom dollar that if I had posted the same identical question it would have been closed within an hour.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 17:55
  • I was asking about your first postscript - is there some specific situation with some down-votes that has to be looked into? I am disappointed that you are escalating this bickering. I am not happy about the tone of the conversation under your 'coy' question, but if you choose to contribute to the problem you are just as culpable as the others involved. Take the high road. You contribute a lot to this site Mari-Lou and it makes me sad that a few folks can get so far up your nose that you are spending your time doing this instead of helping our learners.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:05
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    @ColleenV three of Carmack's answers, in succession, have had anonymous DVs. It looks like suspicious behaviour to me, I cannot make myself anymore clearer. I spend my time doing this, bickering on meta? I should just keep quiet. Discussion on meta is forbidden. Here's a direct question. Can I post etymology questions about contemporary words on ELL, yes or no?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:30
  • @Mari-LouA The line from Romeo & Juliet (which you have quoted in this question, and which is the line asked about in the 'honorable parts' question) is from a 2013 paraphrase of the Shakespeare play. Do you understand that? The question is asking about a 2013 usage, not a 1597 usage. Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:32
  • @AlanCarmack Can I post etymology questions about contemporary words on ELL, yes, or no?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:34
  • @Mari-LouA Words' "original meanings" cannot be archaic. Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:35
  • @AlanCarmack Please answer my question. It's either a "yes" or "no".
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:36
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    @Mari-L - Personally I find most of your questions well-written, well-researched, and welcomed on ELL. As for what Alan thinks, remember, you can't please all the people all of the time. Seems like most Exchanges have a few inflexible pedants more interested in rigid enforcement of perceived standards than anything else. You can let those people set the tone for all of ELL, or you can do your best to ask a question that you feel is on-topic and helpful for English learners and let the chips fall where they may. My advice? Choose your battles wisely – and this one doesn't seem worth fighting.
    – J.R. Mod
    Commented Nov 5, 2016 at 18:53

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