Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

How do you approach sources that might not be in print? For example there is an etymologist who claims comes from a native word but knowledge of this is held in the tribe and is not in print. The story sounds pretty fascinating. How far does one go to verify the origin of a word? I guess this question is for Etymonline and everyone else.

I think the short answer is “As far as reliable evidence can take us”. And I think the long answer is the same as the answer to “Exactly what can count as reliable evidence?”.


I’m not a linguist, but I use Etymonline all the time in my teaching. Is there a standard that the linguistics community follows? How do they address language where knowledge is passed along orally?

Linguists and etymologists are certainly related to each other, but they really study different things. (I’m neither.) Linguistics covers a very wide field, basically “What is language and how does it work?”; etymology is more like “How, when, and where did each language get each of its words, and how does that process work?”

Since I’m not an etymologist I can’t really say, but it appears to me that there must be a certain amount of arguing about what is good evidence and what isn’t, and therefore about what can be stated with certainty and what is still debatable.


Thanks for your insight. The word I was pondering was PUMPKIN but when I put it inside arrows it disappeared from my initial post.


Since “pumpkin” is proven to have been an English word since the 1640s, with proven roots of the word back to French about a hundred years before that, the kind of evidence that could change things would have to demonstrate English speakers having significant recorded contact with that tribe before the 1640s, or French speakers in contact with them before the 1540s. It certainly can’t come from after 1650. In other words, it looks pretty difficult to me.

(Edited to add: even if it was the Pilgrims, the search would be a tough one, because it would basically be necessary to have a source written by one of the Pilgrims saying “… and they taught us their word for it …”.

Just knowing that the groups met is not enough.)


Wikipedia currently has a claim of “an alternate derivation” just as you describe. The problem is that there is no evidence given there for the supposed possibility; the source documentation they’ve provided simply states a claim without even making any comments to support it, as if “Because I said so!” was proof enough. If there was solid evidence that the English used the word, that would be different. Under the circumstances (i.e. there’s a claim but no evidence behind it), that entire paragraph unfortunately deserves to be cut from Wikipedia, or at least reworded to say there’s currently no good reason to believe it.


Thank you! I agree. Appreciate your response.

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empirical sciences are often not without risk

In this case, from my amateurish point of view, the whole thing sounds plausible, I hope it’s true, and I wouldn’t bet against it. But, for example, I haven’t seen evidence to show that the word wasn’t borrowed in the opposite direction! That’s likely just because I haven’t looked for any - but it shows why “the best evidence available” has to remain the standard, and why “but it just makes sense” isn’t worth much, even when it seems as if it should be.

It’s one thing to provide a comprehensive list of the sources for this online dictionary; still, my intuition tells me there is so much lacking in the way of clueing readers in on any given entry. Questions arise practically each time I study entries. Take, “cyclopedia” for starts; the claim is that it’s an elision of ‘encyclopedia’, but there is no indication as to why, nor where that comes from. I do find the website a practical reference, given the number of sources, but I wonder how much effort really goes into cross-referencing. OED is listed as continually updating. Where is it getting those updates from, I wonder. And how does Etymonline go about it?

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It should be the case that a statement such as “cyclopedia, a shortening of encyclopedia” in etymonline text means the site’s primary etymology sources that touched on that point agreed on it. It doesn’t mean I think they’re certainly right about that. I’ve tried to note outliers, where I find them.

The OED citations are a case where the site has drifted out of alignment over time. When the site was built, and the bulk of them were written into it, “OED” could safely be taken to mean “the 2nd print edition of the OED.” I’ve been trying to amend the entries as I spot them to add a “1989” to all the “OED” citations. We sometimes look at the online OED to see what they’ve got on a word we’re working on, but online OED hasn’t been a source for etymonline.

Such updating we do now (as opposed to copyediting of existing text) is in direct sources and digital libraries. The part of it that came out of the books is largely complete. Almost none of it comes directly from purely online sources.

what I fantasized, when first making it out of four primary books, was a system of display that matched the one I use in compiling: nowadays a green pen for notes from Century Dictionary, a red one for MEC, blue for OED, purple for de Vaan, etc. Most of it would have displayed as black text, as involving all of the sources in general agreement.

FWIW, as a test case of the agreement of the listed sources, for “Cyclopedia,” Weekley has “for earlier encyclopedia,” Century Dictionary has “short form of” e., OED has “shortening or modification of;” Klein has “abbreviation of;” Barnhart has “shortened form of.”