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Consider the recent question Is cockroach composed of cock and roach?. The post’s title says it all. @FumbleFingers and I both left quick—and perhaps overly snarky—comments illustrating how easily the user could have found the answer on their own.

The text of the close reason for that question, for users who don't have the reputation to see deleted posts is:

Basic questions on spelling, meaning, or pronunciation are off-topic as they should be answered using a dictionary. See: Policy for questions that are entirely answerable with a dictionary.

I know that there are those who feel that many (most? all?) etymological questions are off topic and better suited to ELU. But I’m with those who feel that some etymological questions are appropriate here. Still, to my mind other questions don’t pass the What-am-I-your-research-slave? test. I suggest we augment the “dictionary” close reason to make it applicable to such lazy questions about etymology.

How ferociously will this proposal be shot down?

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  • "I’m with those who feel that some etymological questions are appropriate here" I'm curious to know what you mean by this. Is it a particular type of etymology question? Are you against migrating etymology questions to ELU entirely?
    – Laurel Mod
    Nov 22, 2023 at 2:16
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    No, @Laurel, I’m not against migrating some. But others, like those of the form How did this get to mean that? can be entirely appropriate here, it seems to me. As another example, if a native speaker of some other language suspects cognates between that language and English and it affects their comprehension or production of English, then questions about that would probably be on topic. Nov 22, 2023 at 3:36
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    The question isn’t off-topic because of its topic. It’s off-topic due to a lack of research. Users are expected to search for an answer before asking. “This question should include more details than have been provided here. Please edit to add the research you have done in your efforts to answer the question, or provide more context. See: Details, Please.”
    – ColleenV
    Nov 22, 2023 at 20:23
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    I’d argue that being off topic and lacking research are quite distinct shortcomings, @ColleenV. But my main point is to peddle my view that just as “You could have found that meaning in a dictionary” is a great reason to close questions, so would be “You could have found that etymology in a dictionary.” Nov 22, 2023 at 20:28
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    @PaulTanenbaum We don’t need to spell out every possible thing that someone could have found out by looking in a general reference. We’d have to add spelling, pronunciation, and parts of speech among other things.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 23, 2023 at 11:20
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    @ColleenV, I agree that we don’t need to spell out everything. But our current wording does feature an explicit list: “spelling, meaning, and pronunciation.” And the wording reads as exclusive: “Basic questions on…” If adding etymology to that list is something “we don’t need to” do, how about if we eliminated the list and simply reworded the close reason? Nov 23, 2023 at 12:00
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    Proposed rewording: “Basic questions that one can answer from a dictionary are off-topic here. If your question exceeds what’s provided in widely available references, please edit it to clarify how. See Policy for questions that are entirely answerable with a dictionary.” Nov 23, 2023 at 12:00
  • @PaulTanenbaum The closing reason cannot be too broad. Basic questions on spelling, meaning, or pronunciation, and questions about etymology is better than Basic questions that can be answered by reading a dictionary.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 12:58

2 Answers 2

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I agree that etymology questions, like the one you cited, should be off-topic as answerable with a dictionary search.

That said, I'm one of the users who think that no questions of the format "What's the etymology of X?" belong on ELL, and I'd favour making that the standard, rather than changing the "dictionary" rule.

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    AS English learner, etymology has never helped me to write more idiomatic sentences. I admit: I asked myself the etymology of English words that sounded "strange" for me. (For example, that happened with kindergarten and handkerchief.) I always found the etymology in dictionaries, though. Reading the etymology gave me useful information, but I have not got better skills in writing in English.
    – apaderno
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:21
  • As for the closing reason, I would add a new closing reason, simply because not all the dictionaries report a word etymology.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 15:04
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Proposed rewording inspired by Paul Tanenbaum's comment and a post on EL&U:

Questions that can easily be answered by a reputable online dictionary are off-topic. See Policy for questions that are entirely answerable with a dictionary for more information.

Making the close reason more general allows it to be applied to any question that could be answered with a dictionary, so we don't need to come up with an exhaustive list of specific types of questions or debate whether a particular question is really about spelling or is it about some other thing that isn't in the list but could still be answered with a dictionary.

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  • That would make the close reason too broad, IMO. I could always find the answer by reading different parts of a dictionary. That does not mean that, as English learner, I could have doubts. Yes, the question should always explain what the OP does not understand, but the lack of explanation is eventually a reason for closing the question on itself.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 8:36
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    @apaderno If you still have a question after referring to a dictionary, and you explain that in your post, it would not be off-topic. There are lots of questions you can’t find the answer to in a dictionary.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 28, 2023 at 12:25
  • Already there was an high-reputation user who wanted to close questions, not because they were off-topic, but because he did not like them, and chose a random closing reason that did not even apply to the question. Let's not give users a pretext to close questions that should not be closed.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 12:48
  • Still, there is a difference between Basic questions on spelling, meaning, or pronunciation and Questions that can be answered by [reading] a reputable online dictionary. The latter is also too broad, considering the request is to close as off-topic the questions about etymology. Sure, questions can be re-opened, but I would not close a question just because the answer can be obtained by reading two different pages of a reputable online dictionary.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 12:52
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    ELU and ELL have different targets. The closing reasons used by ELU should be different from the closing reasons used by ELL, at least because the first is a site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts while the second is a site for speakers of other languages learning English. (That is what english.stackexchange.com/tour and ell.stackexchange.com/tour say.) For ELU, questions about etymology are on-topic, but on ELL they could be considered off-topic because knowing the etymology of a word does not allow me to use more idiomatic phrases.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 13:16
  • @apaderno There's no reason questions about etymology need to be off-topic on ELL. If a learner doesn't want an answer from a linguist, and they couldn't find an answer in a dictionary, they should be welcome to ask here. Some questions that seem like etymology are actually rooted in misunderstandings about English. Our community has teachers that know the tricky parts of learning English and can recognize those questions for what they are.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:04
  • This question is about etymological questions that should be included in the questions to close; I did not change the topic. The answer to this question cannot be Let's make the existing closing reason broader than necessary. It should be about whether those questions need to be closed; in the case they need to be closed, the answer should say if extending the existing close reason is correct.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:19
  • In the question, I read I know that there are those who feel that many (most? all?) etymological questions are off topic and better suited to ELU. But I’m with those who feel that some etymological questions are appropriate here. It seems very specific to etymological questions, not any question that could be answered by reading a dictionary.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:32
  • Even the title mentions etymological questions. (Should we expand the “It’s in the dictionary” close reason to include etymological questions?) It cannot be confused with a question that asks if the existing closing reasons should be expanded to include a loose list of questions.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:36
  • It's not a quiz, but this answer does not say neither if questions about etymology should be closed, nor if the existing closing reason should be expanded to include those questions. Yes, it is meta, but that does mean the answer to a question that asks when meaning-in-context should be used can be about pancakes. ;-)
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:40
  • @apaderno What is your goal here exactly? I answered the question "Should we expand the “It’s in the dictionary” close reason to include etymological questions?" with "Yes, the dictionary close reason should include all topics that can be answered by a dictionary." You are confusing a question about the dictionary close reason with a question about whether all etymological questions should be off-topic. If you want to discuss whether all etymological questions should be off-topic, you should post your own question. Or refer to prior discussions: ell.meta.stackexchange.com/q/1148/9161
    – ColleenV
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:48
  • I am not confusing anything: The question is about etymological questions and this answer is just suggesting a closing reason that doesn't explicitly include etymological questions. I apologize if I commented saying that the suggested closing reason is broader than necessary; I did not know that was not allowed.
    – apaderno
    Dec 28, 2023 at 15:09
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    This is a good start to a reworded close reason, but I think it should 1) Specify only questions easily answered by a dictionary are off topic to accommodate beginners trying to read hard dictionary entries and 2) put more in the close reason itself, like how to edit to get it on topic, similar to what we've suggested for ELU. Note that there are several parts to the new close reason format.
    – Laurel Mod
    Dec 29, 2023 at 14:12
  • @Laurel We would probably need to reword all the different messages for the dictionary close reason similar to what is being proposed on EL&U. I thought about putting more detail in there, but this is just the displayed close reason after the post has been closed, not the information for the author or for close voters. Also, I'm a slacker between December 20 - Jan 2. We may want to flesh out a more definitive/clear post for the policy link as well.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 29, 2023 at 14:57

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