Posted by: Casey Lybrand | July 14, 2010

Oh Word: Etymology of the Word “Word” for Word Wednesday

Yes, Word Wednesday! I love words. I think most people tuning in here love words. Let’s make it a regular feature: we’ll look at a different word each Wednesday. What word should we explore for our first Word Wednesday? Why not start at the beginning? [1]


Dictionary by greeblie, on Flickr

The Word “Word” for the First Word Wednesday

The word “word” is an old word. It seems to trace its root to the Proto-Indo-European language. Here is a family tree of the Indo-European languages. The Proto-Indo-European language is the (unattested) language from which all Indo-European languages are thought to have developed.

The Online Etymological Dictionary defines the word word as “speech, talk, utterance, word”, and traces it to the Proto-Germanic *wurdan. From there we can look to the Proto-Indo-European word *were, which was “speak, say” (and also look at the etymology of verb). [2]

This is a word with some old roots. As such, we would expect to see similar words in related languages. Here are a few cognates of the word “word”, from the OED:

  • wurd – West Frisian
  • wort – Old Dutch, Middle Dutch
  • woord – Dutch
  • word – Old Saxon
  • wort (or Wort) – German. Seriously: Middle Low German, Old High German, Middle High German, and German. That’s some consistency for you!
  • waurd – Gothic

And now some words with a common base, also from the OED:

  • vardasname, title – Lithuanian
  • vardsword, name, promise – Latin
  • verbumword, verb – classical Latin
  • ῥήτωρ (rhētōr) – speaker – ancient Greek
  • vratacommand – Sanskrit (the OED has this one listed with a “perhaps”)
  • verbverb – English! [3]

We can see, however it traces exactly, the word “word” goes back a long way, to have such commonality among those different languages.

Word Wednesday Requests

What words would you like to see featured on Word Wednesday? If you would like to request a word to be featured in a Word Wednesday post, leave a comment on any Word Wednesday post, and I’ll see what I can do. [4]

The Future of Word Wednesday

I’m working on a post about the word “okay”. That one’s taking longer than I anticipated. I thought I knew a bit about the word — and I did — but as I look into it more, I realize how much I didn’t know. I’ll try to have it for next week, but it may be a while longer. Good thing we’re not running out of Wednesdays!

This Wednesday’s post has been brought to you by the word “word”.

Someday I’ll write a post on the etymology of the word “footnote”:

1: Could I ask any more rhetorical questions? Just getting it out of my system before it’s time to query. Also, I have added the tag “Word Wednesday” to last Wednesday’s word post, but this is the official beginning. That wordy Wednesday was just a whim; now it’s a feature!

2: The “*” means something along the lines of “we think this is the word from the proto language but we have no way to be absolutely sure, what with its being all proto“. That is, like, some linguistics for you.

3: The OED uses fewer bangs than I do. Therefore, I win.

4: Speaking of comments: I love etymology; if you have any — even just a snippet — don’t be shy about sharing!


  1. This is so meta. (Maybe “meta” would be a good word for some Wednesday?)

  2. Okay, you know what’s meta? Suggesting the word “meta” for something meta! (My brain is now broken from the meta, but I think I have just enough cognitive ability left to put it on the list.)

  3. I didn’t even think of how meta that was! We are being so freakin’ meta right now, Casey. MY MIND IS BLOWN.

  4. I think Merit Badgers are naturally meta.

  5. Oh dear…I suddenly feel blonde as I do not even know what the word Meta means. Better go google that…

    Great post Casey. Never knew the origins for “word” were Saxon…then again, I should have known that since them pesky Saxons invaded this little island, upsetting the local Britons who kicked arse back then. The women kicked arse as well you know. Boudica, Queen of the Iceni kicked some serious Roman arse.

    hmmm…I think I have a word for you!

    How about Arse (or the American version: Ass)

    I wonder why it’s spelled so different between us…

  6. Boudicaa, Queen of the Iceni was bodacious, right? Awesome! I had to look her up.

    About the Saxons and the word “word” — I *think* you already had a cognate of “word” before the Saxons. Worde, woird, vorde? I’ll poke around and see what I can find for Welsh and Gaelic etymology of a “word” cognate. I’m a little unclear on the exact timeline of “word”, I have to admit, but Welsh and Gaelic are both Indo-European, and with the Sanskrit connection, I think they must have had a cognate before the Saxons invaded. (Google keeps asking me if I’m looking for “word”. No, Google, I’m looking for “wourde”!)

    Arse vs. ass: I’ve wondered that as well. This is going to be so much word-fun!

  7. Casey, I absolutely love the idea and (surprise, surprise) I love words :) I’ll be looking forward to each Word Wednesday.
    In Turkish however, we don’t have something similar to ‘word’; we use ‘kelime’. It comes from ‘kelam’ which was used in Anatolia in older times, and is still used today (my grandmother still uses ‘kelam’ instead of ‘kelime’)
    I’ll be looking forward to ‘okay’ :)

  8. Cool link you found for Boudicca or Boudicea. I better get the spelling correct as that very statue on Westminster Bridge is mentioned more than once in my story! The spelling of her name has changed so many times, god knows what’s correct.

    Welsh and Gaelic should be interesting…as both have Celtic roots. Thames, the river in London is apparently a Celtic word – derived from Tamesa, which apparently means “The Dark One”

    Looking forward to the word ‘okay’ and also what you find about arse/ass :-)

  9. Lua, so happy you like it! I can tell you love words! :) Now I’m very curious about “kelime” and “kelam”. It’s got my wheels turning! I wonder what cognates they do have? (I’m just guessing that words which mean “word” probably do.) Thank you so much for telling me those words! Interesting also, the difference in your usage and your grandmother’s. (A generational thing?)

    Alannah, er, yes! You better get that spelling right! Haha. I’m the last person in the world to get caught up on spelling. In fact, I “cheated” and copy-pasted from the name from that site I linked! I do that all the time when I don’t trust myself to type something out correctly. (Then I don’t have to worry about it.) Though it makes sense that her name would have variations.

    That statue is very cool. How exciting that it’s in your novel. Thanks for the bit about the Thames as well. Such an appealing and intriguing a name for a beautiful river.

  10. Casey, it is a generation thing and it has a pretty interesting story behind it… About 80 years ago when Ottoman Empire became the Republic of Turkey, the language also changed and we started to use the Latin alphabet rather than the Arab alphabet. We never spoke Arabic in Turkey, even in the times of the Ottomans we spoke Ottoman but then with the new republic we started to use Turkish. So now the old generation uses some of the old words from pre-republic and the new generation speaks pure Turkish. It’s an interesting mix, especially for a young author! :)

  11. Very interesting mix! Thank you for sharing your language history, Lua. It sounds like there would be challenges, but also a lot of potential for complex meaning and characterization — I would love to read more about how these language issues relate your writing. (Maybe a blog post, if you take requests!) :) I’m also realizing how much of your blog I haven’t read yet. Need to catch up!

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