Etymology Helps Learning Foreign Languages

This is an archive of my postings to the Chinese "Polyglots" group on, titled "Give me a word in a European language and I'll help you memorize it with etymology", intended to encourage readers to submit words as follow-up postings. Unfortunately, few people on this spam-infested group showed interest and none posted any reply.

The bulk of the text shown below is my summary of the techniques I use to look up etymological information for the sole purpose of memorizing words in French, Spanish, German or Italian and comments on the dictionaries I use on a daily-basis. You, as a reader, is still welcome to challenge me, preferably in Chinese or English, with a word for not just its etymology, which per se is easy to find, but more interestingly, its applicability to vocabulary study.

(Give me a word in a European language and I help you memorize it with etymology)

来自: yong321 2014-11-15 11:39:02

(If you know English and are learning French, Spanish, German or Italian or some combination of them, have a word hard to memorize, and wish to find a cognate to help you, post a reply here. I'll see if I can help.)

(You can find etymologies of most words on the Internet, but not all of them help, as in the case of many Spanish words with Arabic origin, unless you already know Arabic. On the other hand, some etymologies are self-evident, as in the case of the large number of cognates between French and English. Between these two extremes, the etymology you find may appear to be unhelpful on first look. But I may be able to provide a hint, or occasionally a purely fictional association, with one goal in mind : to help memorize the word.)

I look forward to your word challenge!

yong321 2014-11-18 02:35:37

(For example, the French word "décevoir" (disappoint), on first look, appears to be one that requires rote memory. Look up its etymology and you see its cognation with "deceive". Deceiving or deceipt leads to disappointment, which is a natural emotional change. Thus you're helped.)

又如西班牙语acabar(结束),如果已经学了cabo(结束、边沿的边)就很容易了,如果没有就困难一些。查cabo,发现它与英语capita(统计时用的“人”如per capita即按人头算)同源,后者可译作“人头”,头是一端,引申为终止、结束。有点牵强,但在脑筋完全空白时可能有帮助。
(Now the Spanish word "acabar" (finish). It becomes apparent if you already learned "cabo" (end, edge).)

有些词无法查到词源,如德语bestätigen(证实),只能编一个hint帮助记忆,例如这个词听起来有点像best study或studying(最好的研究),其结果是证实某个推断就顺理成章了。
(Some words are missing etymoligical information, such as the German word "bestätigen" (confirm), for which we have to make up a hint to help memorize it. For instance, this word sounds a bit like "best study" or "best studying", as a result of which a certain hypothesis can be confirmed.)

(Even if etymoligical information is available, it may be unhelpful. The Italian word "scarpa" (shoe) came from "skarpa", an outdated German word, of which no further information is available, but which is a cognate with English "scarp", a geologic term for "a cliff at the edge of a plateau or ridge", which in a far-fetched way, reminds one of an image of a foothill, where the word "foot" occurs thus connecting to "shoe", or of the end of something, just like the foot is one end of a human body. But instead of an association thus stretched from an unfamiliar technical word, a made-up mnenomic "a scar on the foot needs a shoe to cover" may be better.)

I look forward to your word challenge!

yong321 2014-11-19 07:14:59

通过词源或助记符(mnemonic)联想是一个有效的词汇记忆方法,但它的适用人群是有限的,它只适合于成年人。儿童可能由于没有足够的知识储备,更愿意选自强记(learn by rote),他们会认为词源或助记符反而增加而不是减轻了记忆的负担。
(Association through etymology or mnemonics is an effective method of memory. But its applicability is limited to only adults or older adolescents. Presumably due to lack of sufficient knowledge and life experience, young children would rather learn by rote, considering etymology or mnemonics as an extra burden of memory rather than an aid.)

(In addition, this method is particularly beneficial to those learning, or able to speak, multiple languages, which have a large quantity of overlapping cognates. These languages don't have to belong to one family or branch. For example, English and German don't share significant vocabulary overlap in spite of both being in one single branch, West Germanic. On the other hand, English and French, which evolved from Latin, share a great number of cognates because many French words entered English one millennium ago.)

yong321 2014-11-20 07:06:21

这里给一个比较challenging的词 in terms of 用词源帮助记忆:德语词Speicher(存储,包括计算机存储或内存,也可作粮仓)。据
得知“zu lateinisch spica”(来自拉丁语spica),而spica能查到,并得知它与谷穗的头或英文所称ear有关,但同时又与英文spike(大钉)同源。那么可以建立这个联想:Speicher使人想到英文spike,想到ear of grain,想到grain,想到granary,想到storage。这个联想链也许太长了,但脑筋完全空白时也许能用上。
(Here's a challenging word in terms of aid with etymology: German word "Speicher" (storage, including computer storary or memory; also, granary or grain storage). According to
this word came from Latin "spicarium", which is not found in various dictionaries, and no connection can be made. Now, look up "Speicher" in Duden
and we read "zu lateinisch spica" (from Latin spica). "Spica" is found in dictionaries, which connects to "ear" in the sense of "fruiting body of a grain plant", and is a cognate with "spike" in English. So we make this association: "Speicher" reminds of "spike", of "ear of grain", "grain", "granary", and finally "storage". This chain of association may be too long, but may be of some help when your brain is completely blank.)

yong321 2014-11-23 12:27:31

I assume most readers on this forum know English quite well. Here I'd like to make some comments in English on what sources or dictionaries I use to look up etymological information on words of French, Spanish, German and Italian.

By far the easiest and most user-friendly source is If you use its English version, i.e.,, the pages for many words will have an Etymology section. It's brief and yet to-the-point. In many cases, the pointers in that section will trigger a good association between the word you want to memorize and a cognate you may have learned before.

If there's no etymological information on this page, see if you can find it by going to the language-specific version of this page. For instance, the German word "öffentlich" at does not have etymological information. Click Deutch and on the German page, you'll see the Herkunft section.

Another web site not limited to a specific language is, which complements in both the information provided for each word and the words it collects. But it's missing meanings of the words and there's no other useful information such as conjugation or deflection. The most inconvenient restriction is that you must enter the word in its dictionary form (verb in infinitive form e.g.), or you would not be able to find it.

yong321 2014-11-24 12:30:43

Among the four languages I talk about here, French is the luckiest in terms of its systematic etymological study. Auguste Brachet's "Etymolgical Dictionary of the French Language" published in 1878, available from is an excellent dictionary written by an extremely methodical erudite. Each word entry has clear explanation of the evolution of letter or letter combination from earlier language sources, in the strict scientific manner. About one fourth of the book at the front outlines how syllables and phonetics changed in history along a systematic and almost predictable track. Not a scholar in etymology per se, I would not sit down reading through all these pages, but instead choose to use the book, or rather, the remaining three fourths' of the book, as a reference only. The systematic summary of French etymology, however, can be occasionally consulted to harden the understanding or memory of such changes.

Take "honneur" as an example. It says "from L. [i.e. Latin] honorem. For -orem = -eur see sec. 227". If you need to study this Latin -orem to French -eur change, just go to Rule 227 at the front and read up on it. The author painstakingly created 284 rules about spelling change from various languages into French, each based on certain examples, turning etymology from haphazard guess into a real science.

yong321 2014-11-26 08:47:30

However, in terms of knowledge of ancient and contemporary languages, Friedrich Kluge stands tall above most other scholars. His "Etymological Dictionary of the German Language", the English edition of which was published in 1891, available from presents him as a top-notch hyper-polyglot conversant with all major European languages, plus Latin, ancient Greek, Old Icelandic, Old English, Gothic, Old Teutonic, Sanskrit and many others.

The book, however, is not as readable as other etymological dictionaries are to a non-professional in philology, partly because headwords are in Faktur typeface and because some pages are no longer clearly legible. But more importantly, the author's writing style is such that, let me guess, his intended readers should be at least half as knowledgeable as he is. Convoluted and more detailed than digestable by an amateur or dilettante, each entry should be read through and quickly scanned again to get the main points, discarding the "Who cares?" part. Fortunately, has already done this work for us, as many entries on the web site have extractd the essential part out of Mr. Kluge's dictionary.

One little disppointment at the dictionary is that the words collected are far from comprehensive. There're probably less than 5000. Furthermore, many fairly common words are omitted apparently because they are a root, which is in the dictionary, with a prefix. But as we all know, some prefixes do not have a clear meaning; ver-, for instance, changes the meaning of the root so much that the word hardly has any semantic resemblance.

Wiktionary, and another good German source, the prestigious Duden dictionary, online at, more or less solve this problem. In Duden, for which there's no English translation, many words have the Herkunft section. This can be consulted conveniently from a page since the latter frequently links to it.

yong321 2015-01-02 05:11:51

When it comes to Spanish, here's a small mystery to me. Currently this is the most popular foreign language studied in the US (see e.g. And yet its etymological dictionaries are the least available. Not only can you not find one at any local bookstore, in spite of by far the largest quantity of the general Spanish dictionaries among all foreign language books, but I also failed to find one with expired copyright. People speaking English may be insensitized to the word origin section of the headwords in most English dictionaries, in paper form or online. How do we explain the extreme scarcity of such information of the second most popular language in America? Could it be related to relatively low level of academic learning and attention paid to it on the part of the Spanish speaking population?

Out of the very few such books I found, I bought Guido Gomez De Silva's "Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua española", published in 2006. It has an English version, "Concise Spanish Etymological Dictionary", though at an unreasonably higher price so it's not worth it. But the description of it written by somebody is interesting, "another of its aims is to help students learn vocabulary, e.g., the English word 'sky' does not help English speaking persons learn the Spanish work 'cielo' but the English word 'celestial' does." The author clearly has the Spanish-learning students on his mind all the time.

Indeed the book is a very good one. Because of its recent publication, many new words are included, even some proper nouns. Prefixes and suffixes are included too, which greatly helps vocabulary study. Each word is explained in clear, readable language, cross-referenced to other languages when needed, but not overly done as Mr. Kluge to German. Words in Arabic origin are spelled in Latin alphabet, which is a plus for me. Due to more than seven centuries' Muslim occupation of Spain, a significant portion of Spanish words originated from Arabic. If you're not interested in learning Arabic or any Middle Eastern language, most of these words have to be memorized by rote or conjured-up association.

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