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This question is prompted by What's going on with the Russian etymology questions?

In this particular case, most of his questions are quite universally negatively voted. Though this is the first time I have someone create so many ids to bypass automatic blocks, I guesstimate there are easily over a hundred subzero-voted questions.

There have been other meta discussions on etymology questions (e.g. [1], [2]), but we haven't changed our guidelines in the on-topic list.

To fix that, I am considering adding the following based on the comment in [2] by @curiousdannii:

... and it is not about...

Etymology of specific words — Etymology questions belong here when they are about systemic issues. This could involve sound system changes, or about languages which have borrowed systemically from another language, or on grammatical morphology. But non-systemic arbitrary borrowings or meaning changes don't belong here.

Along with that, we may have to modify one of the close reasons to accommodate the change to help both, those who ask such questions and those who vote to close such questions. I am considering changing

"Questions seeking help with identification of or translation of specific samples of text are off-topic."

to

Questions seeking help with identification of or translation of specific samples of text, and question about the etymology of specific words are off-topic.

Please let me know your thoughts on the matter.

PS: If you have sufficient karma on the main site, you may be able to see lists of closed and deleted questions to get an idea of what kinds of etymology questions are not popular here.

  • 2
    I've been someone who's been in support of pretty tough lines in regard to etymology questions. I still stand by what's quoted above: linguistics is fundamentally about language systems not just language, so the etymology of arbitrary words doesn't really qualify. But I think it would be helpful if we could build up a list of gold standard etymology questions so that we can see what kind of things we don't want to lose. – curiousdannii Mar 16 at 11:52
  • Either all etymology questions are allowed or none are allowed. – user22302 Apr 6 at 23:40
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Personally, I think the problem with the Russian questions isn't their focus but their lack of effort. I've answered several of them with a quick glance at Wiktionary or Vasmer's etymological dictionary, which the asker could just as easily check for himself.

However, I feel that etymology and derivation questions can absolutely be on-topic here. Something like "I've found some sources that say X is a loanword, and others saying it's inherited, but I haven't come across any cognates outside language Y. Do any other Indo-European languages show cognates?" It's the same sort of question in essence, but shows research effort and is much more interesting.

  • 2
    I still don't love your example type question here, but it's much better than many of those we do get. Maybe we could say something like "etymology questions must situate themselves within a historical context of language change or contact." This context would include both positive content as well as negative, where the OP has actually tried but been unable to substantiate any evidence for cognates. – curiousdannii Mar 16 at 11:48
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I concur with @Draconis' answer, but I wanted to address the problem from an amateur perspective.

Being an amateur myself, I started my interest for Linguistics.SE with etymology questions back in 2012. Coincidentally, one of them was about a Slavonic word that also exists in Russian. It has been warmly appreciated (1,600 views, 16 votes), and this was precisely the thing that attracted me to stay here.

My point is that etymology is the key interest for amateur linguists. Learning the origin of something (a word) you use every day is literally the way how people become interested in Linguistics.

Namely, an amateur may be unaware about systemic things like the Great Vowel Shift or the Grimm's Law. Their first question or two may be naїve or even ignorant. However, answers like "The Vasmer's dictionary suggests that…" should be a hint that "Wow! the Vasmer's dictionary exists! Let me consult it prior to asking my further questions."
If that happens, you get a new armchair linguist.

So please do not restrict questions about etymology.
Let us fight against half-baked, no-brain questions instead.

  • Etymology is only the key interest for some linguists. I don't think that learning the origin of random words got me interested in linguistics. – curiousdannii May 6 at 1:35
  • @curiousdannii, this is correct; that's why I speak about amateur linguists. Their research is irregular, spontaneous, and focuses precisely on random words that come to their mind. Bringing them to the scientific method, teaching them about the existence of fundamental laws seems to be a fair goal for a Q&A site. The only factor (for me) is knowing whether or not they are sincerely ready to learn, which is demonstrated by their attempt to research while asking. Does it make sense? – bytebuster May 6 at 2:04
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yes, I agree that this batch of questions could easily be answered if the person would just look for answers on his/her own. So basically a flood of silly questions more or less amounts to spam. That being said, I believe the site should not ban etymological questions in principio.

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