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Folk etymology or popular etymology is a linguistic term for a category of false etymology which has grown up in popular lore, as opposed to one which arose in scholarly usage. Most look simple and plausible while they often depend on confusion between (near-)homophones or the fact that at least one necessary component for the true etymology is no longer (commonly) known either as a word or in the relevant meaning.
Folk etymology as a productive force
Folk etymology is particularly important because it can result in the modification of a word or phrase by analogy with the erroneous etymology which is popularly believed to be true and supposed to be thus 'restored'. In such cases, 'folk etymology' is the trigger which causes the process of linguistic analogy by which a word or phrase changes because of a popularly-held etymology, or misunderstanding of the history of a word or phrase. Here the term 'folk etymology' is also used (originally as a shorthand) to refer to the change itself, and knowledge of the popular etymology is indispensable for the (more complex) true etymology of the resulting 'hybridized' word.
Other misconceptions which leave the word unchanged may of course be ignored, but are generally not called popular etymology. The question of whether the resulting usage is "correct" or "incorrect" depends on one's notion of correctness and is in any case distinct from the question of whether a given etymology is correct.
Until academic linguistics developed the comparative study of philology and the development of the laws underlying phonetic changes, the derivation of words was a matter mostly of guess-work, sometimes right but more often wrong, based on superficial resemblances of form and the like. This popular etymology has had a powerful influence on the forms which words take (e.g. crawfish or crayfish, from the French crevis, modern crevisse, or sand-blind, from samblind, i.e. semi-, half-blind), and has frequently been the occasion of homonyms resulting from different etymologies for what appears a single word, with the original meaning(s) reflecting the true etymology and the new meaning(s) reflecting the 'incorrect' popular etymology.
The term "folk etymology", as referring both to erroneous beliefs about derivation and the consequent changes to words, is derived from the German Volksetymologie. Similar terms are found in other languages, e.g. Volksetymologie itself in Danish and Dutch, Afrikaans Volksetimologie, Swedish Folketymologi, and full parallels in non-Germanic languages, e.g. French Étymologie populaire, Hungarian Népetimológia; an example of an alternative name is Italian Pseudoetimologia.
Instances of word change by folk etymology
In linguistic change caused by folk etymology, the form of a word changes so that it better matches its popular rationalisation. For example:-
- Old English sam-blind ("semi-blind" or "half-blind") became sand-blind (as if "blinded by the sand") when people were no longer able to make sense of the element sam ("half").
- Old English bryd-guma ("bride-man") became bridegroom after the Old English word guma fell out of use and made the compound semantically obscure.
- The silent s in island is a result of folk etymology. The word, which derives from an Old English compound of īeg = "island", was erroneously believed to be related to "isle", which came via Old French from Latin insula ("island").
More recent examples:-
- French (e)crevisse (likely from Germanic krebiz) which became the English crayfish.
- asparagus, which in England became sparrow-grass.
- cater-corner became kitty-corner or catty-corner when the original meaning of cater ("four") had become obsolete.
Other changes due to folk etymology include:
- buttonhole from buttonhold (originally a loop of string that held a button down)
- Charterhouse from Chartreux
- hangnail from agnail
- penthouse from pentice
- sweetheart from sweetard (the same suffix as in dullard and dotard)
- shamefaced from shamefast ("caught in shame")
- chaise lounge from chaise longue ("long chair")
- straight-laced from strait-laced
When a back-formation rests on a misunderstanding of the morphology of the original word, it may be regarded as a kind of folk etymology.
In heraldry, a rebus coat-of-arms (which expresses a name by one or more elements only significant by virtue of the supposed etymology) may reinforce a folk etymology for a noun proper, usually of a place.
The same process sometimes influences the spelling of proper names. The name Antony/Anthony is often spelled with an "h" because of the Elizabethan belief that it is derived from Greek ανθος (flower). In fact it is a Roman family name, probably meaning something like "ancient".
See the following articles that discuss folk etymologies for their subjects:
- belfry (architecture)
- Brass monkey
- Brent Goose
- Caesarean section
- chaise longue
- Ducking stool
- Jerusalem artichoke
- poll tax
- Welsh rarebit
The French verb savoir (to know) was formerly spelled sçavoir, in order to link it with the Latin scire (to know). In fact it is derived from sapere (to be wise).
The spelling of the English word posthumous reflects a belief that it is derived from Latin post humum, literally "after the earth", in other words after burial. In fact the Latin postumus is an old superlative of post (after), formed in the same way as optimus and ultimus.
Medieval Latin has a word, bachelarius (bachelor), of uncertain origin, referring to a junior knight, and by extension to the holder of a University degree inferior to Master or Doctor. This was later re-spelled baccalaureus to reflect a false derivation from bacca laurea (laurel berry), alluding to the possible laurel crown of a poet or conqueror.
Acceptability of resulting forms
The question of whether the resulting usage is "correct" or "incorrect" depends on one's notion of correctness; at any rate it is a separate issue from the question of whether the assumed etymology is correct. When a confused understanding of etymology produces a new form today, there is typically resistance to it on the part of those who see through the confusion, but there is no question of long-established words being considered wrong because folk etymology has affected them. Chaise lounge and Welsh rarebit are disparaged by many, but shamefaced and buttonhole are universally accepted. See prescription and description.
Source and reference
- Adrian Room, Dictionary of True Etymologies, 1986, Routledge & Kegan Paul ISBN 0-710-20340-3
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.