In another meta question I tried to gauge to what extent we should be able to overlap our scope with indivicual language & usage existing sites, proposed site (and as yet not proposed sites).

Not very many people voted or commented there but from the responses it seemed overlap was OK and that we should cover the scope of not yet existing language specific proposals.

But maybe that topic was too broad, so here is a narrow question.

What kind of etymology questions should we accept?

Are etymology questions dealing with a single language on-topic?

Are etymology questions dealing with a single word on-topic?

Does whether or not there is a language & usage site or proposal for the language affect the decision?

2 Answers 2


I think it would actually be counterproductive for us to have some sort of very strict rule about what is on topic and what is not; in any case we haven't evolved that rule yet. Nonetheless, I will attempt to explain why I found this question off topic.

As a general principle, I don't think that we should consider the existence of other SX sites (or other sites in general) as relevant to our criteria of on-topic-ness. Given the vastness of the Internet, it is madness to attempt to define ourselves relationally with respect to it. Even within the SX microcosm, that isn't how things should work. For a community to form, there needs to be something internal that makes it cohere; we can't just be the residue that other language-related SX sites don't soak up. (This is the same reason why we ought to accept linguistically informed questions about English, even though there is an English Language SX.)

This site is about theoretical lingusitics. A question about the etymology of one word in one language is not within our scope since it has no way of linking up to a broader theory. Maybe the word was inherited, borrowed, invented, etc., but that fact is a historical accident no bearing on any other aspect of the language or languages in general. Etymology questions can be theoretical, but they have to ask not just for the history of a single word, but rather an explanation of the behavior of a class of words, a clade of languages, a particular sound change, etc.

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    This site is about theoretical lingusitics. Do you feel most of the questions asked here so far are about theoretical linguistics? Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 17:06
  • @hippietrail, yes. Do you think differently?
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 17:19
  • Aren't there questions about Phonetics, for example? But anyway, I think that limiting the scope to only some areas of Linguistics has no real reason and it will be just that — limiting.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Sep 29, 2011 at 17:23
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    @Aaron: Actually I felt the questions so far were of a mixed grab bag of types, but then I thought as a mere language enthusiast I might not really have a feel for what is theoretical linguistics after all. So based on that and your statement This site is about theoretical linguistics. I've asked a new scope question on meta Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 4:34

I worry a little. It is possible to generate (at least) one question for every single word in every single language after all, and they are very quick and easy to ask. Such questions could drown out everything else, together with "how is English word x pronounced in dialect/accent y". Then there's double-eep etymology of place-names. Etymology is something where everyone can have an opinion, it is language's equivalent to bikeshed-problems in programming.

Maybe, asking about etymology of words of languages that don't have a stackexchange of their own would be limitation enough?

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    What does "drown out" mean on Stack Exchange? Do you feel Stack Overflow suffers from drowning out of some questions in favour of others? On a successful SE site there are so many questions on so many topics that you only look at the topics that interest you anyway. It doesn't make much sense to say "C questions are drowned out by Java questions" because few people can read them all. Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 10:11
  • When etymology comes down to opinion it is no longer etymology surely but folk etymology and that would be off-topic. Unless of course there is a serious study of folk etymology (-: Commented Sep 30, 2011 at 10:13
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    More to the point, @hippietrail, what does "drown out" mean on as low-traffic a site as the Linguistics Stackexchange still is, seven years on? Commented Jul 18, 2018 at 4:23

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