"troll" and other words with two mommies?

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Oct 5 18:32:11 UTC 2013

Relevant here, I think, is Connie Eble's "Slang: Etymology, Folk
Etymology and Multiple Etymology" (SECOL Review 10, 1986), also
incorporated in _Slang & Sociability_ (1996). Connie applies Roger
Wescott's notion of "lexical polygenesis" to consider how "multiple
etymology" seems to be at play in the history of many slang items.
Michael Adams refers to Connie's work in _Slayer Slang_ (though he
prefers "mixed etymology"), and I believe Ron Butters also cites it in
his _Dictionaries_ paper on "X sucks."

On Sat, Oct 5, 2013 at 1:57 PM, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:
> I probably didn't explain myself clearly. I don't think any of these examples
> exhibit the same phenomenon as 'troll'. There are no end of words to which
> people assign distinct or conflicting etymologies. The point with 'troll' is that
> both etyma are simultaneously present to the contemporary speaker's mind
> and that each figures centrally in shaping its meaning as a "thick term," in
> Bernard Williams term, which both categorizes and judges--the one supplying
> the descriptive content ("using baited lines to catch someone" and the other
> its evaluative content ("a reprehensible activity conducted by a misshapen
> and hidden figure"). So neither could be the "right" etymology by itself in the
> speaker's reconstruction. Whereas no new insight is gained by imagining
> that 'duck/t tape" simultaneously owes part of its meaning to each of the
> supposed sources. And while 'ass' can be regarded as deriving from either
> donkeys or buttocks, and may shift its use accordingly, there's no argument!
> to be made that it must simultaneously be derived from both in order to mean
> what it does.
>> W Brewer=20
>> Date: Sat, 5 Oct 2013 17:21:03 +0800
>> =20
>> GN: <<How many other words ... that have two (or more?) distinct etyma
>> simultaneously present to speakers, each of which actively influences =
> its
>> meaning. >>
>> WB: For a punster, more than for a non-punster. Formal similarity =
> induces
>> semantic association to varying degrees in different people.
>> =20
>> ass 'donkey, fool' (Latin asinus) <=3D ass 'buttocks' (Old English =
> ears).
>> duct tape <=3D duck tape.
>> cache 'stash' [cash, cash-SHAY] <=3D cachet [cash-SHAY].
>> =20
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> =20
>> =20
>> From: Charles C Doyle=20
>> Sat, 5 Oct 2013 14:12:11 +0000
>> =20
>> =20
>> Yes, there exists a fairly extensive category of words that, =
>> historically, have uncertain, confused, multiple, folk, facetious, or =
>> otherwise recoverable or reanalyzable etymologies, available for the =
>> enrichment of their signification by poets and wits and (sometimes =
>> unconsciously) ordinary speakers.  Besides "ass" and "duct/duck tape" =
>> (as WB points out), there's "island."  And we may think of Milton's =
>> narrator's use of "astonished"/"astounded"/"stunned" in reference to the =
>> devils in _Paradise Lost_--recently hurled from heaven by the Almighty's =
>> thunderbolts.
>>> =20
>>> --Charlie

Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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