People seem to enjoy creating fascinating stories about almost anything they see and hear. Languages are no exception – there are many folklore tales about the origin of different words. Few of these versions reflect correct etymology of the words, though some of them are peculiar or funny. Exploring what kind of erroneous etymologies one can come across in a language might give a better idea of how and why these tales emerge and what effect they have on the words we use.
Definitions of False and Folk Etymologies
False etymology is understood as ascribing a mistaken origin to a word. Folk etymology represents how people perceive where a word originates from, which is usually not tied to how linguists explain it. Denning et al. define folk etymology as “widely accepted restructuring of established words due to reanalysis” (65). Reasons for pseudo-etymology are usually connected to what language the word is derived from, how it comes to be understood, and how comfortable people are with pronouncing it.
Common Reasons for Folk Etymologies
Compound words and those borrowed from other languages seem to be more prone to folk etymology. A case in point is the word “bonfire” – in Oxford English Dictionary, its etymology is explained as “bone” + “fire” (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘bonfire, n.’). However, it is not clear if bones were really burnt in midsummer fires. Such interpretation may well be folk etymology, and later the word was reanalyzed again so that its first element was perceived as originating from the French “bon” meaning ‘good’ (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘bonfire, n.’). The word “true blue” is “formed within English” denoting, in a sense, extreme loyalty and/or faithfulness, and may reflect a folk etymology with the meaning of always staying the same (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘true blue, adj. and n.’).
“Pie-hole” is another English compound word formed out of “py” and “hole”. Folk etymology wrongly attributes the origin of “pie-hole” to a combination of “pie” + “hole” because this word resembles holes in a pie (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘pie-hole, n.’). “Artichoke” is a loanword from Italian and has been changed multiple times over the years, partially due to folk etymology (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘artichoke, n.’). The first element of the word was for some time associated with “heart”, the second – with “choke” resulting from perceptions that the artichoke flower had “an inedible center which would choke anyone attempting to eat it”, another interpretation stems from how fast the plant grew, ‘choking’ other plants near it (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘artichoke, n.’).
Likely Situations for Words to Attract Folk Etymology
It appears that such borrowed words and ones comprising two or more stems are more likely to be subject to folk etymology than words originating in English consisting of a single stem. If in a loanword or in any element of a compound word, people see any analogy with an object or a term they recognize and understand well, the people tend to reinterpret the origin of these words as connected to the analogy. Hence the people change their spelling, pronunciation, and sometimes their meaning, either entirely or to an extent.
There is a tendency to assimilate foreign-sounding words to something resembling the speaker’s native language. “Mammoth” is a good example; it is a changed variant of the Russian “mamant” (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘mammoth, n. and adj.’). Under the influence of folk etymology, which tied this word to “behemoth”, once denoting the elephant, “mammoth” lost the letter –n– and acquired its contemporary spelling and pronunciation (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘mammoth, n. and adj.’). This and other examples of folk etymology appear to showcase how words are changed due to the popular perception of where they come from.
It is safe to say that people like to reanalyze compound and borrowed words adapting them to their understanding of the origin and meaning of the words. Sometimes it is difficult to trace why a lexeme has attracted folk etymology as there is no scientific data about it. The popular association of foreign words with ones from the speaker’s mother tongue often leads to their assimilation and formation of new lexemes.
Denning, Keith, et al. English Vocabulary Elements (2nd edition). Oxford University Press, 2007.
Oxford English Dictionary. “artichoke, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Oxford English Dictionary. “bonfire, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Oxford English Dictionary. “mammoth, n. and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Oxford English Dictionary. “pie-hole, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Oxford English Dictionary. “true blue, adj. and n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2019.