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Etymology is a significant component of several major dictionaries, including, in English, the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary, as well as the subject of countless books of language trivia and wordplay. Word etymologies have been used in historical linguistics to (very roughly) track migrations of the speakers of language groups based on changes in word meanings, as well as (very roughly) dating branches in a language's family tree.
Word origins can take on a more sinister aspect, however, when people create incorrect etymologies for certain terms (a notorious example in US culture being the radical feminist lies about the phrase "rule of thumb"); such false etymologies generally serve a political or religious purpose and are generally rejected by mainstream scholarship, but due to their propagandistic and often populist nature (sometimes augmented with a conspiracy theory or two) often find a tenacious foothold in some sections of popular culture.
Etymologies are also often affected by prejudices and superstition, a very common form of this being "taboo deformation", where the use of a word outside certain contexts is considered either offensive or disrespectful, and the actual word is replaced with either an intentional mispronunciation or a euphemism. Taboo deformation often exists within a primarily religious context, such as the conversion of the ancient Hebrew deity name YHWH (probably pronounced as Yahweh or something fairly close) to Jehovah, or the hypothesized distortion of the Proto-Indo-European words for "wolf" (wlkwos) and "bear" (rktos) into mispronunciations such as the Latin lupus or euphemisms such as the Russian medved ("honey-eater").
On the lighter side, there are countless "false etymologies" current in the popular imagination, often for words whose derivation is not certain. The origin of words such as okay and the epithet bloody are two examples.