Word and Phrase Origins

This guide is designed for anyone who is looking for the origin of words and/or phrases, also called etymology (these terms will be used interchangeably in this pathfinder). Both print-based and Web-based sources are included.

Internet Sources | Searching for Etymology | Print Resources

Internet Sources

In general, web sites on word and phrase origins are good, but not comprehensive: most of them are question services of a sort, and the answers are posted on the site. Some of these archives can be quite large, and not necessarily organized by anything more than date of posting; if you’re looking for something specific, use the find function on your browser (this will be a button in Netscape; in Internet Explorer, it’s under the “edit” pull-down menu).

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
From the 1894 work of the same name; this is extensively cross-referenced, and excellent for phrases which have their roots in literature or mythology. Follow the Research – Reference links from the Bibliomania home page.

The Phrase Finder
Use this site to find English phrases and sayings related to a particular word, learn the meaning of a phrase, or determine the origin of a phrase. It also includes a book list of dictionaries, thesauri, and word phrase and origin books.

The Word Detective
This is the online version of the column of the same name; it covers word and phrase origins, as well as general language questions. The site features the newest columns, a sizable archive of past columns, and an “Ask the Word Detective” link, by which readers can send in their questions.

Word for Word
Another online column featuring word and phrase origins; it has an archive of past questions and answers, as well as a forum (which also has an archive).

Collins Word Exchange, formerly Wordwatch
Each week, a different word or phrase is, in the words of the page, “held up for inspection and comment.” This site covers both etymology and usage questions.

This site primarily features the columns of Richard Lederer, which are both informative and extremely funny, with an “Ask the Verbivore” link; in addition, there are links to all manner of other language-related sites.

Wilton’s Word & Phrase Origins
This web page includes an extensive collection of well-researched word and phrase origins, from “Bob’s Your Uncle” to the “Whole Nine Yards”. The author also takes questions via e-mail.

World Wide Words
This extensive site provides information on the origins of numerous words and phrases. It’s best to use the site index if you want to quickly look for a particular word or phrase, rather than the indexes to each individual section. The author also accepts questions via e-mail, and maintains a mailing list.

Take Our Word For It
This site offers a weekly webzine where the authors answer questions about word origins. It also has an extensive, searchable archive. Unfortunately, it’s not a great site to use if you want an answer that cites specific, reputable sources for their information, since they rarely tell you where their info came from.

Searching for Etymology

To look for the origin of a specific word or phrase on the web, use a search engine such as HotBot (, and try searching on the word or phrase in question, plus “etymology” or “origin”:
+”it aint over til the fat lady sings” +”origin”
+serendipity +etymology

Print Resources

These are a few of the reference sources which focus on word and/or phrase origin; they can probably be found in your local public or college library:

The Oxford English Dictionary
2nd edition: Oxford University Press, 1995.

This is the reference source on word origin. It is several volumes long; for each word, it provides the definitions, the etymology, and several examples of historical usage which show how the word has changed over time.

Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origin
2nd edition: Harper and Row, 1988.

Provides the etymology of both words and phrases, and is more up-to-date than many similar sources.

Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Though not especially current, this is still very useful, particularly for phrase origin; like the Oxford English Dictionary, it provides examples of historical usage, including first appearance in print.

Dictionary of Contemporary Slang
London: Bloomsbury, 1997.

Much more current than Partridge, but provides far less detail; it gives a definition of the phrase and its first appearance in print, but no extensive list of historical usage.

If you wish to locate similar books, they can be found under the 412’s in a public library, and the Library of Congress call numbers starting with PE 1000 in most university libraries. If you wish to look up similar titles in either a card catalog or an on-line library catalog, the official Library of Congress Subject Headings under which they can be found are:
English language—Etymology—Dictionaries
English language—Words and Phrases
English language—Slang—Dictionaries

This pathfinder created by Deb DeGeorge

+ Click for more relevant essays