Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Etymology & Folk Etymology

Here are my definitions:
  • Etymology is the science of word origins.
  • Folk Etymology is the art of guessing word origins.

This is what Merriam-Webster Online has to say:

Definition of ETYMOLOGY

1 : the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language
2 : a branch of linguistics concerned with etymologies

Definition of FOLK ETYMOLOGY

1 : the transformation of words so as to give them an apparent relationship to other better-known or better-understood words (as in the change of Spanish cucaracha to English cockroach)

First Known Use of FOLK ETYMOLOGY

1882 [folk etymology was in practice for millennia before the word was coined]

My Canadian Oxford gives a 2nd definition: “a commonly held but false explanation of the origin of a word”. This is the meaning I’m using in this essay (I’ll write about the first meaning another time).

The Greek root of etymology means “true”. Etymologists attempt, as accurately as possible, to determine the true or actual source of a word. Folk Etymologists on the other hand can make up anything as long as it sounds plausible.

There must be something inherent in human genes to make us want to know the origins of things – words, phrases, objects… Or is it just me? No – I must have many fellow origin-seekers judging by the number of books written on the subject (I own 10 or 12 myself).

Most of early writing on word origins (and a significant amount of contemporary writing) was what would now be considered folk etymology. And much of it was wrong. For example Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary gave the origin of bonfire to be from the French for “good fire”; it actually comes from “bone fire”.

An etymologist knows you can’t determine the origin of a modern word just by looking at it. Here are some other examples of similar sounding (and similar meaning) words having completely different origins:

  • Pan (the cooking utensil): from Old English panne, possibly from Latin patina meaning “dish” [question for you etymologists – how do you know it’s not from Latin panis, making “bread pan” almost as redundant as “pizza pie”?]
  • Pantry: from Old French paneterie, ultimately from Latin panis therefore “a cupboard to store bread”. 
  • Minimum: from Latin minimus meaning “least”
  • Miniature: from Latin minium meaning “red lead” which was used to make (among other things) small illustrations in manuscripts called in Italian miniatura. By the time it reached English it had lost its original meaning of “red drawing” and become “small drawing” probably under the influence of minimum
  • Isle: comes from Old French ile
  • Island: from Old English igland, a compound of ig (island) + land. The spelling was modified to resemble Isle because of an assumed relationship. 
  • Man: from Old English mann, plural menn, of Germanic origin.
  • Human: from Middle English humaine from Old French from Latin humanus and ultimately from Latin homo (human being) 
This last pair I will expand on in a future post.

Word Origins…and how we know them, Anatoly Liberman, 2005.
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2001


  1. Now and then, I spend some time with the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The etymologies can be quite interesting. I can think of worse occupations than puzzling out the root words of a 6,000 year old language.

  2. People do love to know origins. With me it is the origins of peoples and persons; how peoples moved around the world, how individuals moved around the world. How any of us got to be in the place we are in today.