Folk etymology – sometimes called popular etymology, analogical reformation, or etymological reinterpretation – is a change in a word or phrase resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familiar one. The form or the meaning of an archaic, foreign, or otherwise unfamiliar word is reinterpreted as resembling more familiar words or morphemes. The term ''folk etymology'' is a loan translation from German ''Volksetymologie'', coined by Ernst Förstemann in 1852. Folk etymology is a productive process in historical linguistics, language change, and social interaction. Reanalysis of a word's history or original form can affect its spelling, pronunciation, or meaning. This is frequently seen in relation to loanwords or words that have become archaic or obsolete. Examples of words created or changed through folk etymology include the English dialectal form ''sparrowgrass'', originally from Greek ("asparagus") remade by analogy to the more familiar words ''sparrow'' and ''grass'', or the derived word ''burger'', created by reanalyzing the word hamburger as ''ham'' + ''burger'', even though the true original etymology consists of ''Hamburg'' (name of city)+ ''-er'' ("a person from").

Productive force

The technical term "folk etymology" refers to a change in the form of a word caused by erroneous popular suppositions about its etymology. Until academic linguists developed comparative philology and described the laws underlying sound changes, the derivation of a word was mostly guess-work. Speculation about the original form of words in turn 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. This popular etymologizing has had a powerful influence on the forms which words take. Examples in English include ''crayfish'' or ''crawfish'', which are not historically related to ''fish'' but come from Middle English ''crevis'', cognate with French ''écrevisse''. Likewise ''chaise lounge'', from the original French ''chaise longue'' ("long chair"), has come to be associated with the word ''lounge''.

Related phenomena

Other types of language change caused by reanalysis of the structure of a word include rebracketing and back-formation. In rebracketing, users of the language change misinterpret or reinterpret the location of a boundary between words or morphemes. For example, the Old French word ''orenge'' ("orange tree") comes from Arabic ''an nāranj'' ("the orange tree"), with the initial ''n'' of ''nāranj'' understood as part of the article. Rebracketing in the opposite direction saw the Middle English ''a napron'' become ''an apron''. In back-formation, a new word is created by removing elements from an existing word that are interpreted as affixes. For example, Italian ''pronuncia'' ('pronunciation; accent') is derived from the verb ''pronunciare'' ('to pronounce; to utter') and English ''edit'' derives from ''editor''. Some cases of back-formation are based on folk etymology.

Examples in English

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.


There are many examples of words borrowed from foreign languages, and subsequently changed by folk etymology. The spelling of many borrowed words reflects folk etymology. For example, ''andiron'' borrowed from Old French was variously spelled ''aundyre'' or ''aundiren'' in Middle English, but was altered by association with ''iron''. Other Old French loans altered in a similar manner include ''belfry'' (from ''berfrey'') by association with ''bell'', ''female'' (from ''femelle'') by ''male'', and ''penthouse'' (from ''apentis'') by ''house''. The variant spelling of ''licorice'' as ''liquorice'' comes from the supposition that it has something to do with liquid. Anglo-Norman ''licoris'' (influenced by ''licor'' "liquor") and Late Latin ''liquirītia'' were respelled for similar reasons, though the ultimate origin of all three is Greek ' (glycyrrhiza) "sweet root". Reanalysis of loan words can affect their spelling, pronunciation, or meaning. The word ''cockroach'', for example, was borrowed from Spanish ''cucaracha'' but was assimilated to the existing English words ''cock'' and ''roach''. The phrase ''forlorn hope'' originally meant "storming party, body of skirmishers"Brown, Lesley (ed.). 2002. ''Shorter Oxford English Dictionary'', vol. 1, A–M. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 1600. from Dutch ''verloren hoop'' "lost troop". But confusion with English ''hope'' has given the term an additional meaning of "hopeless venture". Sometimes imaginative stories are created to account for the link between a borrowed word and its popularly assumed sources. The names of the ''serviceberry'', ''service tree'', and related plants, for instance, come from the Latin name ''sorbus''. The plants were called ''syrfe'' in Old English, which eventually became ''service''. Fanciful stories suggest that the name comes from the fact that the trees bloom in spring, a time when circuit-riding preachers resume church services or when funeral services are carried out for people who died during the winter. A seemingly plausible but no less speculative etymology accounts for the form of ''Welsh rarebit'', a dish made of cheese and toasted bread. The earliest known reference to the dish in 1725 called it ''Welsh rabbit''. The origin of that name is unknown, but presumably humorous, since the dish contains no rabbit. In 1785 Francis Grose suggested in ''A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue'' that the dish is "a Welch rare bit", though the word ''rarebit'' was not common prior to Grose's dictionary. Both versions of the name are in current use; individuals sometimes express strong opinions concerning which version is correct.

Obsolete forms

When a word or other form becomes obsolete, words or phrases containing the obsolete portion may be reanalyzed and changed. Some compound words from Old English were reanalyzed in Middle or Modern English when one of the constituent words fell out of use. Examples include ''bridegroom'' from Old English ''brydguma'' "bride-man". The word ''gome'' "man" from Old English ''guma'' fell out of use during the sixteenth century and the compound was eventually reanalyzed with the Modern English word ''groom'' "male servant". A similar reanalysis caused ''sandblind'', from Old English ''sāmblind'' "half-blind" with a once-common prefix ''sām-'' "semi-", to be respelled as though it is related to ''sand''. The word ''island'' derives from Old English ''igland''. The modern spelling with the letter ''s'' is the result of comparison with the synonym ''isle'' from Old French and ultimately as a Latinist borrowing of ''insula'', though the Old French and Old English words are not historically related. In a similar way, the spelling of ''wormwood'' was likely affected by comparison with ''wood''. The phrase ''curry favour'', meaning to flatter, comes from Middle English ''curry favel'', "groom a chestnut horse". This was an allusion to a fourteenth-century French morality poem, ''Roman de Fauvel'', about a chestnut-colored horse who corrupts men through duplicity. The phrase was reanalyzed in early Modern English by comparison to ''favour'' as early as 1510. Words need not completely disappear before their compounds are reanalyzed. The word ''shamefaced'' was originally ''shamefast''. The original meaning of ''fast'' 'fixed in place' still exists, as in the compounded words ''steadfast'' and ''colorfast'', but by itself mainly in frozen expressions such as ''stuck fast'', ''hold fast'', and ''play fast and loose''. The songbird ''wheatear'' or ''white-ear'' is a back-formation from Middle English ''whit-ers'' 'white arse', referring to the prominent white rump found in most species. Although both ''white'' and ''arse'' are common in Modern English, the folk etymology may be euphemism. Reanalysis of archaic or obsolete forms can lead to changes in meaning as well. The original meaning of ''hangnail'' referred to a corn on the foot. The word comes from Old English ''ang-'' + ''nægel'' ("anguished nail" or "compressed spike"), but the spelling and pronunciation were affected by folk etymology in the seventeenth century or earlier. Thereafter, the word came to be used for a tag of skin or torn cuticle near a fingernail or toenail.

Other languages

Several words in Medieval Latin were subject to folk etymology. For example, the word ''widerdonum'' meaning 'reward' was borrowed from Old High German ''widarlōn'' "repayment of a loan". The ''l→d'' alteration is due to confusion with Latin ''donum'' 'gift'. Similarly, the word ''baceler'' or ''bacheler'' (related to modern English ''bachelor'') referred to a junior knight. It is attested from the eleventh century, though its ultimate origin is uncertain. By the late Middle Ages its meaning was extended to the holder of a university degree inferior to master or doctor. This was later re-spelled ''baccalaureus'', probably reflecting a false derivation from ''bacca laurea'' 'laurel berry', alluding to the possible laurel crown of a poet or conqueror. In the fourteenth or fifteenth century, French scholars began to spell the verb ''savoir'' ('to know') as ''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' derives from 13th-century ''lunicorno'' (''lo'' 'the' + ''unicorno'' 'unicorn'). Folk etymology based on ''lione'' 'lion' altered the spelling and pronunciation. Dialectal ''liofante'' 'elephant' was likewise altered from ''elefante'' by association with ''lione''. The Dutch word for 'hammock' is ''hangmat''. It was borrowed from Spanish ''hamaca'' (ultimately from Arawak ''amàca'') and altered by comparison with ''hangen'' and ''mat'', 'hanging mat'. German ''Hängematte'' shares this folk etymology. ''Islambol'', a folk etymology meaning 'full of Islam', is one of the names of Istanbul used after the Ottoman conquest of 1453. An example from Persian is the word ''shatranj'' 'chess', which is derived from the Sanskrit ''chatur-anga'' ("four-army ame; 2nd century BCE), and after losing the ''u'' to syncope, became ''chatrang'' in Middle Persian (6th century CE). Today it is sometimes factorized as ''sad'' 'hundred' + ''ranj'' 'worry, mood', or 'a hundred worries'. In Turkey, the political Democratic Party changed its logo in 2007 to a white horse in front of a red background because many voters folk-etymologized its Turkish name ''Demokrat'' as ''demir kırat'' ("iron white-horse").

See also

* Backronym * Chinese word for "crisis" * Eggcorn * Etymological fallacy * Expressive loan * False etymology * False friend * Folk linguistics * Hobson-Jobson * Hypercorrection * Hyperforeignism * Johannes Goropius Becanus * Nirukta * Okay * Phono-semantic matching * Pseudoscientific language comparison * Semantic change * Slang dictionary * Wiktionary list of back-formations * Wiktionary list of rebracketings


Further reading

* * Anatoly Liberman (2005). ''Word Origins ... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone''. Oxford University Press. . * Adrian Room (1986). ''Dictionary of True Etymologies''. Routledge & Kegan Paul. . * David Wilton (2004). ''Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends''. Oxford University Press. . {{DEFAULTSORT:False Etymology Category:Etymology Category:Comparative linguistics Category:Linguistics Category:Folklore Category:Linguistic error