Folk etymology

This article is about a technical term in linguistics. For incorrect popular etymologies, see false etymology.

Folk etymology, pseudo-etymology,[1] or reanalysis is change in a word or phrase over time resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familiar one.[2][3][4][5][6][7] Unanalyzable borrowings from foreign languages, like asparagus, or old compounds such as samblind which have lost their iconic motivation (since one or more of the morphemes making them up, like sam-, which meant "semi-", has become obscure) are reanalyzed in a more or less semantically plausible way, yielding, in these examples, sparrow grass and sandblind.[8]

The term folk etymology, a loan translation from the 19th-century academic German Volksetymologie,[9] is a technical one in philology and historical linguistics, referring to the change of form in the word itself, not to any actual explicit popular analysis.[8]

As a productive force

The technical term "folk etymology", a translation of the German Volksetymologie from Ernst Förstemann's essay Ueber Deutsche Volksetymologie in the 1852 work Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung auf dem Gebiete des Deutschen, Griechischen und Lateinischen (Journal of Comparative Linguistic Research in the Areas of German, Greek and Latin), is used in the science of historical linguistics to refer to a change in the form of a word caused by erroneous popular beliefs about its derivation.

Erroneous etymologies can exist for many reasons. Some are reasonable interpretations of the evidence that happen to be false. For a given word there may often have been many serious attempts by scholars to propose etymologies based on the best information available at the time, and these can be later modified or rejected as linguistic scholarship advances. The results of medieval etymology, for example, were plausible given the insights available at the time, but have mostly been rejected by modern linguists. The etymologies of humanist scholars in the early modern period began to produce more reliable results, but many of their hypotheses have been superseded. Until academic linguistics developed the comparative study of philology and the development of the laws underlying sound changes, the derivation of words was a matter mostly of guess-work.

The phenomenon becomes especially interesting when it feeds back into the development of the word and thus becomes a part of a new etymology. Believing a word to have a certain origin, people begin to pronounce, spell, or otherwise use the word in a manner appropriate to that perceived origin, in a kind of misplaced pedantry. Thus a new standard form of the word appears which has been influenced by the misconception. This popular etymologizing has had a powerful influence on the forms which words take. Examples in English include "crayfish" or "crawfish", from the French crevis; "sand-blind", from the older samblind (i.e. semi-, half-blind); or "chaise lounge" for the original French chaise longue ("long chair").[10]

In heraldry, canting arms (which may express 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.

As a cultural force

According to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, etymythology (his term for folk etymology) and lexical engineering are "a major tool for religions and cultures to maintain or form their identity, [... e.g.] within Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups. Lexical engineering reflects religious and cultural interactions and often manifests the attempt of a religion to preserve its identity when confronted with an overpowering alien environment, without segregating itself from possible influences. The result can be contempt, as in the case of rejective phono-semantic matching. But lexical engineering is not always rejective: it can also lead to a kind of ‘cultural flirting’, as in the case of receptive or adoptive phono-semantic matching."[11]

Examples of words modified by folk etymology

In linguistic change caused by folk etymology, the form of a word changes so that it better matches its popular rationalisation. Typically this happens either to unanalyzable foreign words or to compounds where the word underlying one part of the compound becomes obsolete.

Examples of Type A (foreign words)

Examples of Type B (one part becomes obsolete)

Examples of folk etymologies borrowed from other languages

Examples of word meanings modified by a folk-etymology-like process

A process similar to folk etymology may result in a change to the meaning of a word based on an imagined etymology connecting it to an unrelated but similar-sounding word. Often this comes about either through the confusion of a foreign or obsolete word (similar to types A and B above) with a more common word, but it can also result from confusion of two words that have become homophones. Examples:

Further examples

See the following articles that discuss folk etymologies for their subjects:

Other languages

The French verb savoir "to know" was formerly spelled sçavoir on the false belief it was derived from Latin scire "to know". In fact it comes from sapere "to be wise".

The Italian word liocorno "unicorn" is a folk etymology, based on lione (mod. leone) "lion", of older lunicorno (13th century), itself due to the fusion of il "the" + unicorno. Similarly, the medieval byform alicorno (14th century) was from a similar fusion (al "to the" + liocorno).

Medieval Latin widerdonum (Old French guerdon) was an alteration, due to confusion with Latin donum "gift", of Old High German widarlōn "reward, pay-back".

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.

In Southern Italy in the Greek period there was a city Maloeis (gen. Maloentos), meaning "fruitful". This was rendered in Latin as Maleventum, "ill come" or "ill wind", and renamed Beneventum, "welcome" or "good wind", after the Roman conquest.

The Dutch word for "hammock" is hangmat, "hanging mat", folk-etymologized from Spanish hamaca. A similar story applies to Swedish hängmatta and German Hängematte.

An example from Persian is the word shatranj (chess), which is derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga (2nd century BCE), and after losing the "u" to syncope, becomes chatrang in Middle Persian (6th century CE). Today it is sometimes factorized as shat (hundred) + ranj (worry / mood), or "a hundred worries" - which appears quite a plausible etymology.

The Finnish compound word for "jealous" mustasukkainen literally means "black-socked" (musta "black" and sukka "sock"). However, the word is a case of a misunderstood loan translation from Swedish svartsjuk "black-sick". The Finnish word sukka fit with a close phonological equivalent to the Swedish sjuk [15]

Islambol is one of the names of Istanbul used after the Ottoman conquest of 1453.

Acceptance of resulting forms

When a word changes in form or meaning owing to folk etymology, there is typically resistance to the change on the part of those who are aware of the true etymology. Many words altered through folk etymology survive beyond such resistance however, to the point where they entirely replace the original form in the language. Chaise lounge and Welsh rarebit are still often disparaged, for example, but shamefaced and buttonhole as a verb are universally accepted (see Prescription and description) and, for example, listed in the 1913 Oxford English Dictionary, with citations from long before.

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary Online, "folk-etymology, usually, the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant"
  3. Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics Folk Etymology
  4. R.L. Trask, Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics, Folk Etymology
  5. "Folk Etymology", p 142, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics
  6. "Folk Etymology" Winfred Lehmann, Historical linguistics: an Introduction.
  7. Sihler, Andrew L. (2000). Language History: an introduction. John Benjamins. pp. 86–88. ISBN 978-90-272-3697-5.
  8. 1 2 Raimo Anttila, Historical and Comparative Linguistics (Benjamins, 1989) ISBN 90-272-3557-0, pp 92-93
  9. Ernst Förstemann's essay Ueber Deutsche Volksetymologie in the 1852 work Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung auf dem Gebiete des Deutschen, Griechischen und Lateinischen
  10. "The Origins and Development of the English Language", 4th ed., Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, 1993.
  11. P. 237 of 'Etymythological Othering' and the Power of 'Lexical Engineering' in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A Socio-Philo(sopho)logical Perspective, by Ghil'ad Zuckermann in Explorations in the Sociology of Language and Religion (2006), ed. by Tope Omoniyi & Joshua A. Fishman, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 237–258.
  12. "The development of Late Latin liquiritia was in part influenced by Latin liquēre 'to flow', in reference to the process of treating the root to obtain its extract." Barnhart, Robert K. (1988). The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology. H.W. Wilson. p. 593. ISBN 978-0-8242-0745-8.
  13. Longman Exams Dictionary CD
  14. Brown, Lesley (ed.). 2002. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 1, A–M. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1600.
  15. "Kielten ihmeellinen maailma: toukokuuta 2008".


External links

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

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