Deepest etymon list

In the August Word Ways magazine, there’s an article about deep etymons. That is, X is named for Y, which is named for Z, etc. The author could not find any such chain longer than, or even equal to, this one:


  1. Indianapolis 500
  2. Indianapolis
  3. Indiana
  4. Indians
  5. East Indies
  6. India
  7. Indus River

[I’m not 100% sure East Indies belongs in there. Columbus named the natives of the lands he discovered *Indios*, which meant people of India. But he was assuming he was in the East Indies, so maybe it belongs there and maybe not.]

I figured this would be a good challange, to do better than that. So far, here’s the best I’ve found:

Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway

  1. Columbia River Gorge
  2. Columbia River
  3. Columbia Rediviva (ship of Captain Robert Gray when he discovered the river)
  4. Columbia (poetic name for the US)
  5. Christopher Columbus
  6. columba (Latin “dove, pigeon”)
  7. kolumbis (Greek “diver”)

This list is the same for other things named for the Columbia River Gorge, such as the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Note that I’ve included links to support my list. While you don’t have to do that, it’d be nice if all the elements in such lists can be supported by cites if necessary.

Anyway, who can beat a 7 deep etymon list?

Since you’re actually looking for an answer that fits that is factual, I will move this to GQ as you asked.

I haven’t looked into etymons much, but one related thing I’ve found is nested acronyms. For example, some of my old professors were members of something called the LIST, for the “LISA international science team”. LISA, in turn, was a now-canceled NASA project for a gravitational wave detector, and stood for “Laser Interferometry Space Antenna” And “laser” is of course an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”.

So the “L” in “LIST” stood for LISA and for Laser and for light.

Of course, there’s also infinite recursion acronyms, such as GNU (Gnu’s Not Unix), but we’ll disregard those.

It occurred to me that perhaps a few more examples could stimulate people’s imaginations on this. So here’s some more from that article:

  1. Romance languages
  2. Roman Empire
  3. Rome
  4. Romulus

that one probably could be expanded in some way.


  1. DNA
  2. ribose
  3. arabinose
  4. gum arabic
  5. Arab


  1. Java (programming language)
  2. Java (coffee)
  3. Java (island)

canary melon

  1. canary yellow
  2. canary
  3. Canary Islands
  4. canis (Latin “dog”)


  1. electronics
  2. electron
  3. electric
  4. electrum (Latin “amber”)


I can take your Indus chain to level 9 or 10.

  1. The name Indus was directly derived from Old Persian Hindush. The names Hindu, Hindustan, Indus, etc. all derive from this source. At some point along the way from Persian to Greek to Latin, they dropped the initial h-.

  2. The Persian word was in turn derived from Sanskrit Sindhuh, which, no surprise, named the province of Sindh. Iranian languages initiated the shift of initial Proto-Indo-Iranian *s- to h-, is how that came about.

According to one theory I’ve read, which I find convincing: The name Sindhu came from a Proto-Dravidian* origin. In Proto-Dravidian the word for date (the fruit/tree) was cintu, cf. the Tamil word for date: intu. That proto-Dravidian c- went to zero in Tamil in this word, but shows up as s- in Sanskrit. So in pre-Vedic times, the river Indus and the land of Sindh had both derived their name from the date palm trees that grew well there. I might add that Sindh is a big date producer to this day.

*There is evidence that Dravidian languages were in Vedic times spoken much farther north, not very far from the Indus valley, and, based on hydronymy (river names), likely in pre-Vedic times extended even father north and west, especially if Elamite and Dravidian are related.

**The same phoneme ச “c” also turns out pronounced [s] more often than not in Tamil.

Two questions for the OP:

  1. Do simple compound words count? You can make them almost as complex as you want in most Germanic languages. And I’ve heard that Sanskrit and the Inuit languages are really good at this too…

  2. Do names (more specifically, royal names) count? There’s a long list of Louis’s, kings and dauphins of France, presumably all named after fathers, grandfathers or in some cases perhaps after the previous reigning king.

Not sure what you’re asking about, here. Compounds can be part of any step, including the beginning. But you can’t follow two different etymon paths based on different parts of the compounds. Is that what you’re asking about?

I thought about those, and forgot to mention them. Let’s ignore them for this question. They’re too trivial to bother with.

  1. Proto-Italic *rum- ‘to flow’?
  1. Arabic عرب.
  1. Sanskrit yawa, a word for grain, meaning ‘barley’ in India but perhaps referring to the rice of Java (cf. Persian jow ‘barley’).

  2. Proto-Indo-European *yewo- ‘barley’ or other grain, which is also the origin of Greek zea ‘spelt, einkorn’, now used in the scientific name for corn, Zea mays.

  1. Proto-Indo-European *kwon- ‘dog’.

  2. Perhaps related to Proto-Sino-Tibetan *d-kʷəj-n. Or to Nostratic *kuwan- ‘dog’, or clear back to Proto-World *kuan, if you like.

  1. Greek ἤλεκτρον ‘amber’.

  2. Greek ἠλέκτωρ ‘shining sun’.

Does this game require that each step is a proper name, as in the OP?

What I really wondered is whether (as per your example) Columbia River Gorge, parsed as ((Columbia River) Gorge) [one depth!] could be extended to things like (hypothetical) *(((Columbia River) Gorge) Bridge) [two depths] and *((((Columbia River) Gorge) Bridge) Motel) [three depths].

No. In fact one of the steps I gave in the OP was from a Greek word to a Latin word, neither proper names.

If they were, in fact, named that way, then yes.

Well, that’s how we usually name stuff. If you want to go into some really deep shit, look up the IUPAC names of some organic chemicals!

Several folks are posting steps that have the same meaning (such as Johanna using both the Latin and the PIE for “dog”). Does that count?

The OP’s interesting idea keeps reminding me of a B. Kliban cartoon with illustrations of the following pairs:



Not quite what the OP means, of course. But now it’s stuck in my brain when I revisit this thread.

Another Kliban cartoon I loved depicted “fent” (a single post stuck in the ground), and “fents” (a picket fence; that is, a row of posts). Veering off topic, I know.


When they are different words. That’s how etymology goes: One word mutating into another. How semantic change weaves in and out of the process is very interesting and sometimes almost kaleidoscopic.

I’ve read all the Tony Hillerman novels, so I had the name “Chee” in memory. Then when grating parmesan/pecorino romano/asiago etc. while making dinner, I suggested: Why not “chee” as the singular? All these varieties collectively are then “cheese.” That did not go over so well.

No joke, though, the word “pea” actually came about through the same process of illicit singularization that I joked about with cheese. The name of the vegetable is originally “pease” with an -s that is not a plural morpheme but derived from the root s of Latin pisum (singular). It wasn’t supposed to be singularized by removing -s because it hadn’t actually been pluralized with -s in the first place. Same thing is true for cheese (from Latin caesum). Why pease got reanalyzed as a plural while cheese didn’t… is the question.

Probably because peas can be handled as discrete spherules rolling about while cheese is just a lump, a mass. In the old days when pizzas hadn’t been invented yet and they didn’t have such a wide variety of cheeses all at once, most people could afford only one type of cheese at a time, so it didn’t lend itself to reanalysis as plural the way pease did.

The nursery rhyme “Pease Porridge Hot” is a remnant of the older use of “pease” as a singular noun.
I once came up with this response to a well-known koan:

Q: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
A: An applau.

A Buddhist friend that I told this to was not impressed.