Folk etymology

Folk etymology is a term used in two distinct ways:

  • A commonly held misunderstanding of the origin of a particular word, a false etymology.
  • "The popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant; "the process by which a word or phrase, usually one of seemingly opaque formation, is arbitrarily reshaped so as to yield a form which is considered to be more transparent.

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 in Dutch, Afrikaans volksetimologie, Danish folkeetymologi, Swedish folketymologi, and full parallels in non-Germanic languages, e.g. Hungarian népetimológia, French étymologie populaire and Israeli Hebrew etimológya amamít (popular etymology). Examples of alternative names are Italian pseudoetimologia and paretimologia (<paraetimologia), as well as English etymythology.

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 sound 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.

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. 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. This native Anglo-Saxon word, at one time spelled iland, derives from an Old English compound of īeg or īg + land, but was erroneously believed to be related to "isle", which had come to English via Old French from Latin insula ("island"; cf. Modern Spanish isla). Old English īeg, īg derives from Germanic *aujō = "object on the water", from earlier Germanic *agwjō, and is akin to Old English ēa = "water", "river", from prehistoric Germanic *ahwō. Hence through *ahwō, island is related, not to Latin insula, but rather to Latin aqua ("water"). (For a use of ēa, see Eton, Berkshire, Origin of the Name.).

More recent examples:

Other changes due to folk etymology include:

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".

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, 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.

The spelling of the English word lethal reflects a belief that it is derived from Lethe, the river in the mythological kingdom of the dead. In fact it comes from the unconnected Latin word letum, meaning death.

In British English, aubergines are sometimes called "mad apples". The Italian word for the aubergine is melanzana, which was misheard as mela insana.

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.

Olisipona (Lisbon) was explained as deriving from the city's supposed foundation by Ulysses (Odysseus), though the settlement certainly antedates any Greek presence.

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 ("well come" or "good wind") after the Roman conquest.

The Dutch word for "hammock" is hangmat, ("hanging mat") formed as a folk etymology of Spanish hamaca.

In the Alexandrian period, and in the Renaissance, many (wrongly) explained the name of the god Kronos as being derived from chronos (time), and interpreted the myth of his swallowing his children as an allegory meaning that Time consumes all things.

The American Grizzly bear is so named because its hair is grizzly or silver-tipped, but its name was later mistakenly derived from grisly meaning “horrible”. This error has been perpetuated in the grizzly bear's scientific trinomial name: Ursus arctos horribilis.

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.

See also



  • Anatoly Liberman (2005). Word Origins ... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195161472.
  • Adrian Room (1986). Dictionary of True Etymologies. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7102-0340-3.
  • David Wilton (2004). Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517284-1.
  • Ghil'ad Zuckermann (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X.

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