There is a certain confusion when it comes to today’s word, for example, does it strictly refer to a person who specialises in studying the nature and structure of a language /or several languages; or could it also equally well name someone who is skilled in the usage of several languages?
The term, of course, derives from the Latin lingua ‘language, tongue’, where it is worth noting that the Latin term, as a synonym to language, was firstly used in English as early as 1660, in a printed version of Richard Brome’s A Jovial Crew, or the Merry Beggars play, where it is written that: “We teach them their Lingua, to crave and to Cant”, whereas the term linguist made its first steps into English nearly 80 years earlier – thanks to the translation of the New Testament, “translated faithfully into English out of the authentic Latin”and printed at Rhemes by Iohn Fogny in 1582 – to denote the meaning of a ‘skilful speaker’: “Much like to some fond Linguists of our time, who think themselves better than a doctor of Divinity that is not a Linguist.”
And while the first usage compared the art of oratory of doctors of theology versus self-taught “impostors”, the second one, a decade later, used the term to name a person who has mastered the art of several languages, “the many-tongued Linguist”, as recorded by Gabriel Harvey in his Pierces supererogation, or; A new prayse of the old asse .
The meaning of ‘an expert in or a student of language, synonymous to a philologist’ appeared first in use to record the importance and glory of the linguistics study in the 1600s. At the time when vernacular languages were on the rise, with still most scholarly works written in Latin, William Camden in his Remaines concerning Britain, in a special chapter dedicated to languages, where he writes that scholars falsely teach that there are only few proper languages, while in reality: “The American discoverers find a new language in every valley of Peru or hundred miles in America”, states that he lives in times “when it is a greater glory now to be a Linguist, then a Realist.”
Seven years later, in 1612, Robert Coverte in his A true and almost incredible report of an Englishman that travelled by land through many unknown kingdoms firstly used the term linguist as synonymous to a translator and interpreter: “Our General sent our Linguist or Interpreter to certify them.”
In early colonial New England, an interpreter between Europeans and Native Indians was known as a linguister, a term first attested in use in John Winthrop’s Journal from 1649.
And though many people nowadays still think of a linguist as someone who speaks many languages and usually works as a translator or interpreter, a linguist, also known as a linguistic scientist or a linguistician, is someone who studies every aspect of a particular language or a group and languages, and is not necessarily a polyglot (a person who speak many different languages).