An interesting visual take on etymology from mkinde of Ideas Illustrated, Visualizing English Word Origins:

Using Douglas Harper’s online dictionary of etymology, I paired up words from various passages I found online with entries in the dictionary. For each word, I pulled out the first listed language of origin and then re-constructed the text with some additional HTML infrastructure. The HTML would allow me to associate each word (or word fragment) with a color, title, and hyperlink to a definition.

It produces some striking, if predictable, results. (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. Neat. I’ve also been trying coming up with ways of detecting etymological facts in literature, especially etymological tropes in poetry, using OED. I discussed some of this work in a presentation at Digital Humanities 2012. Slides are here: (the second half of the presentation describes an etymology search program and some metrics).
    Also random discussions collected here:

  2. It’s a pity that he didn’t test Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech, in which – it is alleged – the only word of French origin is “surrender”.
    (I suspect that the allegation is as untrue as it is unkind, but I’d be mildly interested to know.)

  3. The first ten words of the Churchill speech are: ‘From the moment that the French defences at Sedan and …’, which, not counting “French” and “Sedan”, already contain two words out of Old French.

  4. Jeffry House says

    It would be very surprising, since a lot of military terminology is French in origin, from general to colonel to lieutenant to manuevre.

  5. The word “French” is Anglo-Saxon < Frencisc, umlauted and palatalized from Franc, an inherited tribal name..

  6. It’s not the whole speech that is meant, just the famous sentence from the peroration: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” I suspect Churchill was more interested in stressed monosyllables than in etymology.

  7. Thanks, D-AW, John.
    Aye, it’s probably the peroration that’s meant. It’s an unkind remark because people of Churchill’s generation remembered the doggedness of the French on the Western Front in the Great War. For them the French collapse in 1940 was a horrible surprise. It’s youngsters and others ignorant of history (is that indirect enough, Hat?) who enjoy sneering at French military prowess.

  8. These popular characterisations are always a bit unfair. I learnt when I was a youngster that Italian tanks have six gears: two forward, four reverse (or something like that).

  9. Well, I see it’s been applied to the French as well:
    Q: Did you hear about the new French tanks?
    A: They have 5 gears…4 in reverse, and one forward gear just in case they’re attacked from behind!

  10. I thought “baseball” was the Cornish name for the sport before becoming the American name? So shouldn’t it be British English instead of American English?

  11. Base ball is a plain English expression, and the game was played in England (with different rules) before coming to America. It’s referred to in Jane Austen.

  12. marie-lucie says

    the new French tanks
    Like the US, France is a great exporter of military hardware. Not that I find this anything to brag about.

  13. John Cowan says

    The paragraph in which the surrender sentence, a total of 307 words appears is pretty Germanic on examination. Here are the non-native words: confidence, duty, neglected, arrangements, prove, Parliament, defend (thrice), menace, tyranny, necessary (twice), rate, resolve, Majesty’s, Government, nation, Empire (twice), Republic, linked, cause, native, aiding, comrades, tracts, famous, State, Gestapo, odious, apparatus, Nazi, rule, France, oceans, confidence, cost, surrender, moment, part, subjugated, armed, guarded, Fleet, carry, power, rescue, liberation. (Struggle is of Germanic origin but may or may not be native.) That’s about one in six, which is probably pretty sparse for a political speech.

  14. John Cowan says

    Oops, fleet is native. In addition, I left out French, because originally l was going to leave out all proper names.

  15. Rodger C says

    French is native.

  16. John Cowan says

    Well, it existed in OE, but it’s not clear to me whether it went through Romance or descended directly from Proto-Germanic. France certainly had such a detour.

  17. @John Cowan: Etymology Online says of French: from Old English frencisc “French,” originally “of the Franks,” from franca, the people name….

    This suggests there was no detour through Romance. However, what I found more interesting was this note: Similar contraction of –ish is in Dutch, Scotch, Welsh, suggesting the habit applies to the names of only the intimate neighbors.

  18. SFReader says

    Looking at the map, it doesn’t seem likely that Angles, Jutes and Saxons would need to use Latin name for Franks who were literally their next door neighbors (well, next street neighbors)

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