Folk etymology definition

Dennis Preston preston at MSU.EDU
Fri Mar 7 17:48:11 UTC 2008

What's the difference between the two (except time depth)?


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>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Poster:       Dave Wilton <dave at WILTON.NET>
>Subject:      Re: Folk etymology definition
>"Folk etymology" can be a confusing term because there are two distinct
>senses of the term.
>The sense that M-W defines is the more technical one. It's the sense you'll
>find more often in the work produced by linguists and lexicographers. The
>word need not be borrowed from another language to be subject to folk
>etymology, only unfamiliar to a particular group of speakers. "Bridegroom"
>is a good example of a folk etymology that is not borrowed. As the Old
>English "gome" or "guma" (man) fell out of use, it was transformed into
>"groom" in the specific sense of a man to be married.
>The other sense is that of a popular etymology, a commonly held belief,
>often but not necessarily untrue, about the origin of a word or phrase.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
>Scot LaFaive
>Sent: Friday, March 07, 2008 6:55 AM
>Subject: Folk etymology definition
>Reading through the "Did you know?" section of the MW word of the day email,
>I came across this:
>"...a process called folk etymology, in which a word of another language is
>transformed to a more familiar-sounding term..."
>I've never heard folk etymology defined as such and it seems completely
>wrong from what I've always been taught and read. Is there some hidden
>definition that I've never heard of before or is Merriam Webster shoveling
>BTW, here's the full section:
>"The Chinook of the Pacific Northwest were avid traders, and in the course
>of their history a trade language developed that came to be known as Chinook
>jargon, based on a combination of Chinook and other American Indian
>languages with English and French. The Chinook jargon term "hayo makamak"
>meant "plenty to eat." By a process called folk etymology, in which a word
>of another language is transformed to a more familiar-sounding term, "hayo"
>was identified with "high" and the spelling and meaning of the entire phrase
>was transformed. Beginning in the 19th century, the term "high-muck-a-muck"
>referred to a self-important person. Since then, the expression has taken on
>several variations, including "high mucky-muck" and "high-muckety-muck," and
>nowadays the "high" is often dispensed with entirely."
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Dennis R. Preston
University Distinguished Professor
Department of English
Morrill Hall 15-C
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48864 USA

The American Dialect Society -

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