popular etymology


A false etymology (fake etymology, popular etymology, etymythology, pseudo-etymology, or par(a)etymology) is a popular but false belief about the origin or derivation of a specific word. It is sometimes called a
folk etymology Folk etymology (also known as popular etymology, analogical reformation, reanalysis, morphological reanalysis or etymological reinterpretation) is a change in a word or phrase resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familia ...
, but this is also a technical term in linguistics. Such
etymologies Etymology ()The New Oxford Dictionary of English The ''Oxford Dictionary of English'' (''ODE'') is a single-volume English dictionary A dictionary is a listing of lexemes from the lexicon of one or more specific languages, often arr ...
often have the feel of
urban legend An urban legend or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the tradition A tradition is a belief A belief is an Attitude (psychology), ...
s, and can be more colorful and fanciful than the typical etymologies found in dictionaries, often involving stories of unusual practices in particular subcultures (e.g. Oxford students from non-noble families being supposedly forced to write ''sine nobilitate'' by their name, soon abbreviated to ''s.nob.'', hence the word ''
snob ''Snob'' is a pejorative term for a person who believes there is a correlation between social status Social status is the level of social value a person is considered to hold. More specifically, it refers to the relative level of respect, hono ...
''). Many recent examples are " backronyms" (
acronym An acronym is a word In linguistics, a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes that can be uttered in isolation with semantic, objective or pragmatics, practical meaning (linguistics), meaning. In many la ...
s made up to explain a term), such as ''posh'' for "port outward, starboard homeward".

Source and influence

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 etymologyMedieval etymology is the study of the history of words as conducted by scholars in the European Middle Ages In the history of Europe, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted from the 5th to the late 15th century. It began with the fall o ...
, for example, were plausible given the insights available at the time, but have often been rejected by modern linguists. The etymologies of Humanism, humanist scholars in the early modern period began to produce more reliable results, but many of their hypotheses have also been superseded. Other false etymologies are the result of specious and untrustworthy claims made by individuals, such as the unfounded claims made by Daniel Cassidy that hundreds of common English words such as ''wikt:baloney, baloney'', ''wikt:grumble, grumble'', and ''wikt:bunkum, bunkum'' derive from the Irish language. Some etymologies are part of
urban legend An urban legend or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore Folklore is the expressive body of culture shared by a particular group of people; it encompasses the tradition A tradition is a belief A belief is an Attitude (psychology), ...
s, and seem to respond to a general taste for the surprising, counter-intuitive and even scandalous. One common example has to do with the phrase ''rule of thumb'', meaning "a rough guideline". An urban legend has it that the phrase refers to an old English law under which a man could legally beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. In the United States, some of these scandalous legends have had to do with racism and slavery; common words such as ''picnic'', ''buck'', and ''crowbar'' have been alleged to stem from derogatory terms or racist practices. The "discovery" of these alleged etymologies is often believed by those who circulate them to draw attention to racist attitudes embedded in ordinary discourse. On one occasion, the use of the word ''Controversies about the word niggardly, niggardly'' led to the resignation of a US public official because it sounded similar to the unrelated word ''nigger''.

Derivational-Only Popular Etymology (DOPE) versus Generative Popular Etymology (GPE)

Ghil'ad Zuckermann proposes a clear-cut distinction between Derivational-Only Popular Etymology (DOPE) and Generative Popular Etymology (GPE): "DOPE consists of etymological reanalysis of a pre-existent lexical item [...] The DOPE producer is applying his/her Apollonian Tendency, the wish to describe and create order, especially with unfamiliar information or new experience [...], the craving for meaningfulness." DOPE is "merely passive", "mistaken derivation, where there is a rationalization ''ex post-facto''." GPE, on the other hand, involves the introduction of a new sense (meaning) or a new lexical item – see, for example, phono-semantic matching.

See also

*List of common false etymologies of English words *Back-formation *Backronym *Bongo-Bongo (linguistics) *Chinese word for "crisis" *Eggcorn *Etymological fallacy *False cognate *False friend *Linguistic interference *OK *Phonestheme *Phono-semantic matching *Pseudoscientific language comparison *Semantic change



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External links

* Richard Lederer
''Spook Etymology on the Internet''

Etymology Error Folklore Urban legends Misconceptions Pseudolinguistics Semantic relations it:Paretimologia#Paretimologia in senso lato pt:Etimologia popular