A Word From the Wordsmith

In 1994, Anu Garg, a computer science graduate student in Ohio, decided to pick a daily word, study its origins, and share his findings with his fellow students. The result was Wordsmith.org, which today has more than 650,000 readers in 200 countries. Over the past 13 years, Garg has shared thousands of words with fellow linguaphiles, including illeist (someone who refers to himself in the third person, a la Bo Jackson), and petrichor (the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell), and origin trivia like the fact that “shampoo” comes from the Hindi word “chumpee,” meaning “head massage.”

Garg has just published a book of his findings, The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words, and now he has offered to blog here about origins of the word “economics.”

Mention the word “economics,” and it brings out images of pie charts, models, theories, and professors with glasses hanging on their noses. Billions of dollars hang on the mere grunting of economists such as the Fed chairman. There’s even a Nobel Prize in economics.

Well, economics has come a long way from its homely beginnings. The word “economics” has its origin in the Greek “oikonomikós” (relating to household management), from “oikos” (house). Going much much farther back, ultimately the word descended from the Indo-European root “weik-” (clan), which also gave us words such as villa, village, villain, vicinity, ecology, and parish.

Once upon a time, before we had Wall Street, the NYSE, leading economic indicators, and Alan Greenspan, there was a family. A household was the unit of economy, literally. The family worked the farm, grew its own food, cooked its own meals, and took out its own trash. Sound economy meant sound management of the household. No trips to Whole Foods, no visits to Chinese takeouts, and no pizza deliveries there.

Then things changed.

Specialization came along. Division of labor crept in. Today, before that bunch of lettuce hits the shelves in your neighborhood Albertson’s, a hundred different people may have helped it turn from the seed to the packaged, bar-coded merchandise. Beep of the checkout scanner, and it’s yours, free to take home.

Which brings us to the subject of home economics. Now that would be a redundant phrase, wouldn’t it? And is there a Nobel for the best in running a household?

Michael Chui

The "dismal science" is from a Thomas Carlyle quote. I really hate it, because I consider economics to be The Science of Choice more than anything dismal.

Re: OED. See Erin McKean.


A belated and huge thank you to Mr. Garg. I look forward to an alert from your site EVERY day....and invariably pass it on.

I have been dubbed (by many who've known me for a very long time), a recovering type "A' bibliophile...specialized. I only buy nonfiction in hardback (aka: bibliosnob); I buy mostly, only nonfiction (aka: bibliodork/geek...regionally interchanged); I constantly forget to return books to the library (aka: bibliotwit); BECAUSE...in trying to "kick my biblio habit", which has lowered my socioeconomic status to bibliopauper, I've reverted to bibliolargesse...a new condition attributing to ire found in every librarian in my city.

John B. Chilton

Speaking of the source of the phrase "dismal science" see

'At the most trivial level, Carlyle's target was not Malthus, but economists such as John Stuart Mill, who argued that it was institutions, not race, that explained why some nations were rich and others poor. Carlyle attacked Mill, not for supporting Malthus's predictions about the dire consequences of population growth, but for supporting the emancipation of slaves. It was this fact—that economics assumed that people were basically all the same, and thus all entitled to liberty—that led Carlyle to label economics "the dismal science."'

Tarun Saigal

If there's anything I am thankful for to the ol' blighty and the fact that India endured two centuries of colonisation, is the wonderful and brilliant legacy of the education system that they left behind. Followed even today, albeit, in a much modified manner, it has given India and many Indians ( though I wish their numbers increase exponentially) the power over the lingua franca. Thank you Anu, you rock

Richard Everett Planck

I beg to differ with one responder....
Economics is not ‘the dismal science'; it's ‘happy' and it's not science. Try getting a technical paper published which concludes that our extant economic theory is driving us closer and closer to WWIII. [If your paper doesn't have a happy ending, it doesn't even get past the acquisitions editors.] And if you think economics is a science, try learning freshman economics after you've been through a graduate engineering program. [I think the main reason why SEA accepted my verbal paper several years ago (“Unified Demand Theory in Euclidean 3-space”) was because they had no idea what I was saying but the title sounded like science.] Extant economics is not science; it's ‘alche-nomic wishcraft' but nobody will realize it until after it's too late.


Three words: "Oxford English Dictionary."


I don't want to be picky or anything, but "house" in Greek is "oikia" and is feminine, just like "la maison" in French.


Clearly, etymologists have their own shibboleth.

David R.

Do more people take "home economics" in high school or "economics"?


he must be the balderdash master


It's all Greek to me.


Larry Lard

When 'from the Greek' is used in English etymology, it usually means 'from the Ancient Greek', wherein 'house' is indeed 'oikos, and is masculine.

Ron O'C

Thank you Anu! I love the A Word A Day e-mails. Though I have to confess I always assumed the name Anu was female, so I was surprised when I read Anu referred to as 'he'. Perhaps Anu should release an edition on the origin of his name..


Has anyone tried the daily e-mails from www.yourdictionary.com - same concept, I just found it much more down to the grassroots and informative there.


#4: In the state of New York (at least, back in the long-ago era in which I attended high school) economics is required for all students, but home-ec is an elective. I never took the latter after middle school, where it was required (but probably not by the state).

a student of ancient greek

Just to clear up the semantic confusion....
"Oikia" is the Ionic form of the Attic "oikos." Both are correct, and the form you see depends on which ancient author you are reading.

On to other things, I am a fan of wordsmith.org. Who has the OED with them all the time?


@11: What? You don't have your 28 volume OED at home? Or subscribe to their online service?

Seriously: The OED is the best resource for the English language. If you want a hot dog, use the website Dubner recommends. If you want a 7 course meal with all the frills, there is no alternative to the quality of the OED.

And no, I'm not a traveling OED salesman. If I were, I'd be 8 feet tall and 500 pounds of rippling muscle. : P


An interesting word-blog of a slightly different tilt can be found at
She does word comparisons and goes into more depth on the evolution of word meanings and applicability of usage. Hence there isn't a new word every day, but the depth of discussion more than compensates for the lack of regularity.



corrected link:
The common parlance


Thank you, Mr. Garg!

Freakonomics readers might not be aware that the etymology of "economics" was at one time a standard introduction to school texts and popular books that tried to explain the mysteries of money and Political Economy. The main Wikipedia entry on economics echoes this commonplace by invoking the history of the word in its second sentence.

The idea was that the principles underlying good management of a household are the same as the principles underlying good management of a state. Sort of an early, pre-Keynesian version of the distinction between micro- and macroeconomics.

I sometimes think we live in a world today where people in power believe good practices of household management do not apply at the macro level. As if some other set of rules applied...

Is there another etymologist in the house? What of the origins of the word, "freak"? And what do they make "freakonomics" into?