• 3-minute read
  • 12th January 2020

What Is Etymology? And Where Does “Proofreading” Come From?

Etymology is something word nerds (like us) get quite excited about. This is mostly because we find language fascinating. But it’s also because knowing the etymology of a word can help you work out how to use it or spell it correctly. But what exactly is etymology? Let’s take a look.

Defining Etymology

As a discipline, etymology is the study of how language develops and changes. And the etymology of a word is where it comes from, its linguistic origins.

We can see this more clearly if we look at the etymology of “etymology,” which is made up of two words from ancient Greek: Etymon- (meaning “true sense”) and –logia (“the study of”). The literal meaning of “etymology” is therefore “the study of the true sense of words.”

Given how much language we’ve borrowed from the Greeks, it is odd we mostly know them for pillars.

Why Is Etymology Useful?

One positive of knowing the etymology of a word is that it helps you to understand similar words when you encounter them. Once you know that -logia means “the study of,” for example, you can guess that any word you find with “-ology” at the end is probably “the study of” something.

More importantly, looking at the etymology of a word can help us to make sense of how to use it. This is especially true when we consider words that have multiple meanings, like “proof.” So with that in mind, let’s look at the origins of “proof” and what that can tell us about proofreading.

The Origins of “Proofreading”

Have you ever wondered what the “proof” in “proofreading” means? Even if you’re not very familiar with the word “proof,” you may know it usually means “evidence that something is true.” But what is the relationship between “a scientific proof” and the “proof” in “proofreading”?

This becomes clearer if we look at how the word “proof” developed. Its earliest known origins are the Latin word probare, meaning “to confirm by testing.” This is why the modern English word “prove” can mean both:

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  1. Confirm something with evidence
  2. Subject something to a test

The second of these meanings is rarer these days, but we still see it in terms like “proving grounds” (i.e., an area for testing new equipment).

It’s also why the word “proof” pops up in “proofreader.”

To explain, since “prove” means “test something,” the pre-publication versions of books were known as “galley proofs.” A test version, if you will (with “galley” a reference to the metal trays used for type in printing). And the people who checked these proofs for errors were termed “proofreaders.”

Galley proofs (proofreading and publishing were less hi-tech in the old days).

So a proofreader is not interested in scientific proofs, but rather someone who “tests” the final draft of your work for mistakes and clarity.

It all makes sense when you know where the word comes from!

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