I've noticed over the past few weeks that there are occasionally questions that pop up about the etymology of words such as What is the origin of the word "ell"? and What does "You are talking through your hat" mean? (the latter of which was closed as off topic).

I feel like etymology questions in general should be closed on ELL, as they aren't really about learning English, but rather are either general interest or are about English Language and Understanding, and consequently I think such questions are better suited to ELU.

So anyway, my question is this:

What should ELL decide to do with questions that are primarily asking about the etymology of a word or phrase?

Edit After suggestions in the comments section that seeding answers might hinder the discussion, I've removed some suggestions from the answers. If you have an opinion as that is not represented in the answers question please take some initiative and post it as an answer rather than just voting the question itself up or down.

  • 2
    Polls are usually discouraged. See this comment by Robert Cartaino.
    – ctype.h
    Feb 28, 2013 at 1:47
  • 1
    @ctype.h: As I've said before, I totally agree with you, and basically said as much here: meta.ell.stackexchange.com/questions/279/…. Several people there seemed to be of the opinion that they don't like to have to make a formal answer to agree or disagree, and end up just voting the question as to whether they "agree" or "disagree" with the question itself. I felt that in this particular question's case I wanted something more than "yes"/"no", so I gave people three options and encouraged them to add more if they felt those were lacking
    – Matt
    Feb 28, 2013 at 1:49
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    @ctype.h: This is not so much about polling, as seeding the discussion. The three options I posted are not all possible options, and I would actively encourage others to add alternatives so that others can comment and vote on it. As it stands, the question does not fit a YES/NO format, and consequently had I not seeded the discussion, it would be difficult to divine meaning from any votes that were cast on the question itself. For example, if the question recieved +16/-4 votes, would that mean we should add a tag, or close the questions, or that others also think there is a problem?
    – Matt
    Feb 28, 2013 at 2:10
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    When you are adding what you consider all the possible answers (or the relevant answers), you are changing the question in a poll. A poll doesn't allow you to answer how you want, but give you just the choice to select between a set of answers.
    – apaderno
    Feb 28, 2013 at 8:31
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    Your three suggested answers don't include how I'd answer the question: "It depends" (or maybe "All of the above"). I wouldn't want to paint some category of question with a proverbial broad brush, and decide that NONE of those questions belong here, or ALL of those questions belong here. To me, it depends: What are they asking about? Why are they asking? It's not hard for me to imagine three etymology questions, one of which would be a good fit for ELL, one of which would be better asked on ELU, and one of which wouldn't fit very well in either community.
    – J.R. Mod
    Feb 28, 2013 at 20:00
  • @kiamlaluno: No. In fact I quite clearly said I didn't think my three answers were all of the possible answers. I'm trying to get the discussion started. If you have a fourth answer, add it as an answer. If I don't seed the discussion, I don't get a discussion. I just get a number which is impossible to divine meaning from. Is the +1/-3 on this question because people don't like the question? Or is it because they don't want us to take action? Or is it some of one and some of the other? If you think that there are better alternatives, take some initiative and post them as answers.
    – Matt
    Feb 28, 2013 at 21:01
  • @J.R. That's great. I'm glad you disagree with the three options, since that's what having a discussion is about - and I've added your suggestion as an alternative answer. If people on ELL were more forthcoming to add suggestions such as yours as answers rather than just blindly voting the question, I wouldn't need to seed answers.
    – Matt
    Feb 28, 2013 at 21:02
  • "For future reference, it is preferable to open the topic to discussion rather than polling with this type of vote-on-what-I-say format." I didn't say that.
    – apaderno
    Mar 1, 2013 at 2:26
  • @kiamlaluno: Ok. In order to move this discussion on from being about whether I was asking the question in the right way or not, I've removed three of my answers. Hopefully I'm wrong and other ELL meta users will take the time to add their own answers so we can have a clearer policy on whether etymology questions like those listed in this meta-question should be ruled as off-topic on ELL.
    – Matt
    Mar 1, 2013 at 2:52
  • I like this question much more now that it's no longer in a poll format. Moreover, I think the conversation has become rather productive – something everyone should take note of, lest they be tempted to set up a similar poll format. Quite often, there's more sides to an issue than an O.P. might initially surmise.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 2, 2013 at 22:15

3 Answers 3


I concur in the opinion WendiKidd advances.

I'd also like to point out that when you see the term etymology or origin in a question, OP is unlikely to be asking about an expression’s historical development, as we assume. What a learner wants to know is not the history behind an expression, but its logic: Why does this phrase mean what it means?

(And, ironically, this use is truer to the etymological sense of etymology than our narrower focus on historical vicissitudes!)

So, for instance, user37324 was perfectly in line with our purposes to invite comment on the ‘etymology’ of talking through your hat; the meaning of the phrase is not transparent, and if anybody had been able to come up with an answer it would have been helpful.

I feel we cannot remind ourselves too often that with our particular audience we must be very careful to read questions empathetically, with an eye which looks through the surface language to the underlying problem.

  • You managed to do a much better job of presenting the opinion, though, I must say! +1, I agree completely :)
    – WendiKidd
    Mar 2, 2013 at 23:55

Present-day meaning isn't defined by etymology. Because of this, etymology is often irrelevant to understanding a language; if you don't already know the etymology of a word, you have no way of knowing if learning it will help you understand or not. Therefore, 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.

  • I might be able to agree with this if your conclusion wasn't in bold print, and wasn't so sweeping. 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.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 2, 2013 at 22:11
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    Present day meaning is strongly influenced by etymology and for a language learner to come to grips with why English is the way it is and how to use English correctly etymology can help considerably. As a polyglot learner of many languages I always seek to understand the etymology in a sense that covers both origins, usages, variations and nuances, and as WendiKidd and StoneyB point out, the logic of the language which is intrinsic to a proper understanding of etymology. Jan 16, 2016 at 7:28

You make a good point, but I think there needs to be a bit more refinement than placing all "etymology" questions into one category.

If the entirety of a question is "What is the etymology of [x]?" then yes, that question ought to be moved to ELU. But there are some cases when etymology, and the connection between two words, can actually be helpful to an english learner--and if that is demonstrated in the question, I think the question is valid and useful to this site.

I can't think of an example at the moment--if someone has a good one, please comment to suggest and I'll edit it in--but if there are two words that seem to be similar, but actually aren't, and the question is asking if they are etymologically similar and how that came about, it might help them to better understand and remember those words in the future. I know I've seen a question like this before, I just can't think of a good example. But as long as the question is related to the user trying to get the hang of the English language, rather than just idle curiosity (as I'd assume most etymology questions are rooted in), then I think the question can have a home here.

  • ...this answer doesn't read very well, does it? I think what I really need is a good example, and I can't think of one for the life of me. If anyone can figure out what I'm trying to say here and has an example for me, please let me know... Maybe then this answer will make more sense! ;)
    – WendiKidd
    Mar 1, 2013 at 19:38
  • Hysteresis and hysteria, perhaps.
    – user230
    Mar 1, 2013 at 23:34
  • I can't think of a case where a questioner would have a question where they don't know the answer, but would know that the etymology of a word would help answer the question. Hence, I can't think of a case where asking for the etymology of a word would EVER be on topic for ELL.
    – Matt
    Mar 1, 2013 at 23:52
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    @Matt: forming a consensus rule for an SE site because "I can't think of a case" where this would be EVER helpful seems rather short-sighted. Just because you can't think of one right now doesn't mean there aren't dozens of good questions waiting in the shadows – ones that might never get asked if someone stumbles across your meta question. Etymology may be an advanced topic in general, but how about the phrase "sounds like a broken record"? Anyone old enough to have played their music on vinyl knows exactly where that came from; .mp3-ers might confuse the idiom with, say, Olympic records.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 2, 2013 at 22:21
  • @J.R. Consensus rules are not inviolate. If a series of questions about etymology are all off topic and better suited to ELU, then we at ELL are perfectly at liberty to say that "in general, etymology questions are off topic". In the case where someone asks a question that is clearly a good fit for ELL, then we can hold other meta discussions to decide whether the consensus rule does not apply. I'm a bit disappointed at the moment as to how much hostility there is at ELL to holding these types of discussion. Without discussion, ELL is just a Q&A site. With discussion, it becomes a community.
    – Matt
    Mar 4, 2013 at 19:54
  • @J.R. In case it's not obvious, I'm really not trying to impose my viewpoints via meta discussions. I'm really just trying to get people to think about what ELL should be, and part of working out what ELL is is to discuss what ELL is not. We shouldn't be adverse to holding discussions about some topics being a better fit for other stackexchange sites to make sure that ELL is focused on being great for English Learners, rather than just a dumping ground for questions that aren't great questions for ELU.
    – Matt
    Mar 4, 2013 at 19:56
  • Hostility? I'm only having a discussion. In fact, I've upvoted your question. I'm not comfortable with the assertion, "in general, etymology questions are off topic," because I don't think all of them would be, particularly when it comes to metaphorical and idiomatic usages. I think some etymology questions would fit better here, and others would fit better on ELU; it depends on the nature of the question being asked. Like you, though, I'm only expressing my opinion, I don't expect everyone to necessarily agree with it. Opinions are rarely unanimous in a community, particularly a large one.
    – J.R. Mod
    Mar 5, 2013 at 10:45
  • @Matt: When learning a new language, I try to discover as much etymology as possible because then I know what I'm saying, not just regurgitating sounds.
    – MMacD
    Jan 2, 2017 at 13:43

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