I am interested in the origin of the words discipulus and disciplina, which have found their way into many modern languages, e.g., in the English words disciple and discipline. Unfortunately, there seem to be two conflicting etymologies, which I detail below. I am asking for some authorative information that goes beyond what is described below, in particular any arguments for and against these etymologies.

Etymology 1

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives as one alternative for the origin of the English disciple:

Old English discipul […], Biblical borrowing from Latin discipulus "pupil, student, follower," said to be from discere "to learn" [OED, Watkins], […]

A similar derivation is claimed by the Wiktionary and some other sources (which may however all be copying each other).

Etymology 2

The German etymological dictionary Kluge (23rd edition, 1999) gives the following chain of origin (for the German Disziplin):

  • Disziplin comes from disciplina.
  • disciplina comes from discipulus.
  • discipulus comes from discipere, where the latter is marked as a deduced form (“erschlossen”) and shall mean to grap (“erfassen”).
  • discipere is formed from dis and capere.*

As sources it cites:

  • H. Schulz, Deutsches Fremdwörterbuch (1913), 151.
  • O. Mauck – Der lateinische Begriff ‘disciplina’ (Diss. Freiburg/Schweiz 1941) [Diss. means Dissertation and refers to a PhD thesis or similar.]
  • Joachim Ritter – Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie 2 (1972), 256–261
  • Lexikon des Mittelalters (1986), 1130

I have access to neither of those and suspect that only the second item will provide further insights.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a similar account as an alternative to Etymology 1:

But according to Barnhart and Klein, from a lost compound *discipere "to grasp intellectually, analyze thoroughly," from dis- "apart" […] + capere "to take, take hold of" […]


The reason why I am so interested in this is the spelling of the German word Disziplin in orthographies that feature a long s (ſ):

  • If the letter s in that word would originate from an s at the end of a (non-inflectionary) morpheme, as in Etymology 2, the word would be spelt Disziplin.

  • If the letter s was originating from an s in the beginning or middle of a morpheme, as in Etymology 1, the word would be spelt Diſziplin. This is the spelling given by old German dictionaries, but this may be just a reflection of the etymological knowledge of that time.

  • To my knowledge, the pre-1910 spelling of the German word is not Diſziplin, but Disciplin, e.g. here, 4 lines from the bottom: deutschestextarchiv.de/book/view/haeckel_weltraethsel_1899?p=45
    – fdb
    Apr 28, 2016 at 23:26
  • @fdb: That you find examples with s instead of ſ does not surprise me and happened often in these borderline cases. Nonetheless, my three dictionaries from the beginning of the 20th century all give Diſziplin. The change from c to z happened around the beginning of the 20th century and was in accordance with a general change of “Germanising” cs (e.g., Concern to Konzern).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 29, 2016 at 4:50

1 Answer 1


De Vaan (2008) says that the etymology is uncertain and that both of the theories you mentioned have problems. He bases this on the two most commonly consulted etymological dictionaries of Latin, Walde–Hoffmann and Ernout–Meillet:

Proto-Italic *kapelo- 'who takes'.

Walde–Hoffmann derive discipulus from *dis-capiō 'to assume mentally, interpret' (cf. disceptāre 'to negotiate, decide' Cic.+), which is semantically not compelling. Ernout–Meillet are very hesitant about it. On the other hand, -pulus is difficult to explain on the basis of discō.

Bibliography: Walde–Hoffmann I: 355; Ernout–Meillet 176. → capiō

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