Folk etymology definition

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sat Mar 8 02:41:16 UTC 2008

The first sense is a specific category of lexical transformation: taking an
unfamiliar word and modifying it to a form that is familiar, e.g.,
"brideguma" to "bridegroom," "catercorner" to "kittycorner."

The second sense includes any popularly held belief about a word or phrase
origin, e.g., "news" is an acronym for north-east-west-south, "dead ringer"
comes from bells attached to coffins in case the deceased wasn't really dead
and needed to summon help. Typically, however, it does not include folk
etymologies in the first sense as this is usually not recognized as a
potential method of transformation by those who have not studied the field.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Dennis Preston
Sent: Friday, March 07, 2008 9:48 AM
Subject: Re: Folk etymology definition

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


>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>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
>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
>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
>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
>several variations, including "high mucky-muck" and "high-muckety-muck,"
>nowadays the "high" is often dispensed with entirely."
>The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

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 -

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list