Word histories and dirt lions
January 9, 2009 9:18 AM   Subscribe

How does one arrive at a list of all the English words that can be traced back to a given root word? The word "chameleon" will be discussed.

Evidently "chameleon" comes from Greek chamai "on the ground" + leon "lion." Leaving aside some obvious misunderstandings of this animal's taxonomy and life history, I'm interested in finding out what else might have come from "on the ground."

In the Merriam-Webster entry I just looked at, it said "more at HUMBLE," so I clicked and found that "humble" also came from "chamai," through "humus." This is interesting and peculiar, and I would like to know what else might share this root word.

More generally, I'd like to know how to get a list of all the present-day words that have a given root word. Is there a kind of book that does this, or an online database that can do this? Thanks for your help.
posted by sleevener to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wow...sort of like a reverse etymological dictionary? I found this thread which might get you close.

(in the meanwhile: paging languagehat...)
posted by jquinby at 9:29 AM on January 9, 2009

(by the way - the 2nd or 3rd response in that thread tells how to do this with the online, searchable version of the OED - so if you can get to a library that has it and do the transliteration, you should be on your way).
posted by jquinby at 9:34 AM on January 9, 2009

The American Heritage Dictionary's lists of Indo-European and Semitic roots are good for this, though of course they only work for elements from those language families. But the root *dhghem-, for example, has:
Earth. Oldest form *dhĝhem-, becoming *dhghem- in centum languages.
Derivatives include bridegroom, chameleon, and homicide.
1. Suffixed zero-grade form *(dh)ghm-on-, “earthling.” bridegroom, from Old English guma, man, from Germanic *gumōn-. 2. O-grade form *dh(e)ghom-. chthonic; autochthon, from Greek khthōn, earth. 3. Zero-grade form *dhghm-. chamaephyte, chameleon, chamomile, germander, from Greek khamai, on the ground. 4. Suffixed o-grade form *(dh)ghom-o-. humble, humiliate, humility, humus1, omerta; exhume, inhume, transhumance, from Latin humus, earth. 5. Suffixed o-grade form *(dh)ghom-on-, “earthling.” a. homage, hombre1, hominid, homo1, homunculus, ombre; bonhomie, homicide, from Latin homō, human being, man; b. human, humane, from Latin hūmānus, human, kind, humane (in part from dhghem-). 6. Suffixed form *(dh)ghem-yā-. chernozem, sierozem, zemstvo, from Old Russian zemĭ, land, earth. 7. Full-grade form *(dh)ghem-. zamindar, from Persian zamīn, earth, land.
Note that "humble" does not come from khamai but from humus; both the Greek and the Latin words come from the same PIE root.
posted by languagehat at 9:41 AM on January 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

You might want to look into the sound changes or Lautverschiebungen which govern the way a language develops.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:27 AM on January 9, 2009

The trouble with the OED is the roots appear to be in the native languages. Keeping in mind we're solidly beyond my sphere of knowledge, for chameleon it lists the root in "L" (guessing Latin), then "Gr" (guessing Greek) and finally "f" (no idea) where it reads:

{chi}{alpha}{mu}{alpha}{giacu} on the ground, dwarf + {lambda}{geacu}{omega}{nu} a lion.

Note the addition of "dwarf". To search for other words with that root you then do a word search for that first bit, but change the brackets to pounds: "#chi##alpha##mu##alpha##giacu#", per the poster on that thread. The results are:

camomile, cham- (plants and flowers)
chamæ- (begining of several technical/scientific words)
Chamærops (a type of palm tree)
chameleon (your entry)
germander (another plant genus)

Humus is the root of things that seem to focus on humanity (dishume, humble, humic, humin, hummus, inhume, man, mor, posthumous, transhumance), but the OED doesn't link the two and humus doesn't have those Greek characters for it.
posted by jwells at 11:04 AM on January 9, 2009

bradshaw of the future has lots of interesting examples of disparate words that come from the same root, if you want to skip your own searching.
posted by wilko at 11:11 AM on January 9, 2009

Yeah, as much as I love the OED, AHD is much better for this.
posted by languagehat at 11:13 AM on January 9, 2009

This is excellent, thank you everyone!
posted by sleevener at 11:44 AM on January 9, 2009

Late to the party, I'd like to mention that the Indo-European part of the American Heritage dictionary is sold as a book in its own right. It almost always suffices for etymologies, and it's a slim paperback—much nicer to carry around than the whole dictionary. And if you're a word nerd, it's as good as poetry.
posted by eritain at 7:54 PM on January 19, 2009

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