How Do I Become an Etymologist?

Judith Smith Sullivan
Judith Smith Sullivan
The OED is the most comprehensive English dictionary in existence.
The OED is the most comprehensive English dictionary in existence.

An etymologist, or an expert in the study of words, is a linguist. In order to become an etymologist, an individual usually must obtain several advanced degrees in English, linguistics, phonetics, or other related fields. After completing the education requirements, he or she must also complete research and publish his or her findings to become an etymologist. Etymologists usually work for research companies or educational institutions.

Becoming an etymologist requires an advanced degree.
Becoming an etymologist requires an advanced degree.

In order to get a master's degree and doctorate in the study of words, an individual must first complete high school and a bachelor's degree. The bachelor's degree should be in a field related to linguistics. Many times, a person who chooses to study literature, journalism, creative or professional writing, education, library science, or communications goes on to study linguistics in graduate school. Even without one of these degrees, it is possible to be accepted into a linguists program, especially if your professional goals and academic passion for the subject are detailed in a well written admissions essay.

Etymologists must study English, linguistics, or similar subjects.
Etymologists must study English, linguistics, or similar subjects.

Choose your graduate school and courses carefully. Try to find programs with professors who are etymologists and linguists. This will increase your ability to focus on the history common words and the fundamentals of linguistics. Understanding these basic concepts is crucial if you want to become an etymologist.

Relevant courses are commonly labeled as English or linguistics. The study of phonetics, syntax, and grammar are all related to etymology. Courses which delve into the evolution of a language may be called something like to "History of the English Language" or "Historical Linguistics." Often, anthropological and cultural studies are also a part of linguistic studies.

One of the first texts you will be introduced to, if you are studying the English language, is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). This dictionary is the most exhaustive collection of words in the English language ever created. It was written with the help of thousands of volunteers who laboriously researched the earliest known occasion of a word appearing in print, a date which approximates the birth of the word itself.

You will probably not pursue much original research in studying for your master's degree. You may assist your professors in primary research or do some secondary research. While studying for your doctorate degree, however, you should be actively participating and leading research. During this time, your professors will be available to give you guidance and feedback on research techniques. You should also publish your work before finishing your Ph.D.

Your doctoral research is practice for the real job of being an etymologist. After you graduate and have become an etymologist, you will pursue your own research, probably on your own time and using your own funding. Publishing your work and speaking at professional conferences and educational institutions will help you to build your reputation as a scholar.

If possible, you should find a job as a professor in a research university. This will allow you to pursue research with the help of university grants and funding, as well as the help of students. Many etymologists do their best work while teaching at a university or college.

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    • The OED is the most comprehensive English dictionary in existence.
      The OED is the most comprehensive English dictionary in existence.
    • Becoming an etymologist requires an advanced degree.
      Becoming an etymologist requires an advanced degree.
    • Etymologists must study English, linguistics, or similar subjects.
      Etymologists must study English, linguistics, or similar subjects.