Word Matters Podcast

What's folk etymology?

Word Matters, Episode 58

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The English language 1) is not logical, and 2) loves to hold onto its mistakes. Enter folk etymology, or, attempts to apply logic to the language, and the mistakes that took root.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: etymology of the folksy type. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Sometimes the history of a word is inextricably linked to a goof, a gaffe, an utter, complete mistake. In fact, there's a whole category of words for which this is true. Here's Peter with words derived through a process called folk etymology.

Peter Sokolowski: We often say that English is a mongrel language. We borrow words from other languages. We sometimes say it's improper to say borrow, even though that's the linguistic term that's frequently used because we never give these words back. And when we talk about foreign terms borrowed into English, we tend to first think of what I would guess is fairly recent borrowings because those words obviously still look foreign. So you think of words like cannoli or karate or Sudoku. These are terms that are obviously kind of borrowings from a foreign language. Older ones get more Anglicised because if they were borrowed earlier, then over time, they had become more English in their spelling and in their pronunciation. So a word like platoon is really just an English version of the French word, peloton or peloton. And barbecue comes from the Spanish word barbacoa, but barbecue and platoon seem very English now because of familiarity. And it seems to me that language is a habit and that's an important point because that habit means that sometimes we change the words to make them more comfortable. So one example is this term chaise lounge, or is that how you would say it?

Emily Brewster: Chaise lounge.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, we have chaise. You're right. So it's spelled in the French manner, C-H-A-I-S-E and then lounge like lounge. Of course, lounge is a French word that we've borrowed, but chaise lounge in French would be chaise longue. It's originally from chaise longue, which meant long chair. And what's interesting is that the word longue, L-O-N-G-U-E, has the same letters, but in a different order as the word lounge, L-O-U-N-G-E. When this piece of furniture was brought in the late 1700s over to England, what had been a chaise longue, became a chaise lounge. And that's this gravitational pull toward a more common word is known as folk etymology, or the transformation of an unfamiliar term to make it seem more familiar since longue in the French way is not an English word, but lounge is. So the thing is this particular story goes on because lounge in English, one of the definitions of lounge is a sofa, or a place to sit, a long couch, a lounge chair.

Emily Brewster: That's right, so chaise longue or chaise lounge makes perfect sense to an English speaker.

Peter Sokolowski: It makes this particular switch from longue to lounge almost irresistible. I call it a gravitational pull because the logic is impeccable, even though language isn't always logical. So sometimes we apply logic to these things, and it is interesting that both terms are still current. Chaise lounge and chaise longue. It seems like there is a distinction that we recognize chaise lounge is used more frequently for outdoor or poolside patio furniture, and chaise longue, or just simply chaise by itself is used for indoor furniture.

Emily Brewster: Hmm.

Peter Sokolowski: It's kind of an interesting case study in what we could call folk etymology. But there's a lot of these.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Folk etymology, it's also called corruption-

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: Which I think is very interesting.

Ammon Shea: A little judgmental there.

Peter Sokolowski: The rotting of language.

Emily Brewster: Yes, we prefer the term folk etymology. It just sounds friendlier.

Peter Sokolowski: Also because the term etymology brings to mind the origin of a word. And what we're saying is that the origins of these words is often not what they appear to be.

Emily Brewster: That's right. It's an instance of speakers trying to make more sense of a word. So they modify the words that it makes sense to them.

Peter Sokolowski: And we love stories.

Ammon Shea: One that comes to mind for me is that bonfire was started off as bone fire in middle English. It was in fact, a fire of bones. And there is some speculation-

Peter Sokolowski: I didn't know that.

Ammon Shea: That the bon is because we thought of it as having a pleasant meaning in French, bon marche. Do we only go towards words that we think we know, or is it trying to bring the word to a pleasant association?

Peter Sokolowski: I think it's simply familiarity, which may or may not be pleasant because for example, the name muskrat. So it's a small mammal and certainly the rat is another small mammal, but the animal was called in the Algonquian language of Massachusetts of the time. It was called a musquash and the musquash was later interpolated as rat. The second syllable was rat and the first syllable as musk, which is a word that we associate with animals and their smell. And so muskrat is just simply the way English speakers heard that name.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, the fact that we moved it towards musk and rat kind of puts the kibosh on my theory that we're moving towards something pleasant.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, there's not a euphemistic impulse at work there.

Ammon Shea: Right?

Peter Sokolowski: No, just familiarity. Another similar one from a similar language... another Algonquian language is the word woodchuck, the groundhog like animal, the Narragansett name was ockqutchaun and ockqutchaun, it was just simply heard by English speakers again, through their ears and filtered through their logic.

Emily Brewster: Another really good animal example, there's no euphemistic impulse here either, is the word cockroach.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right, right, right.

Emily Brewster: Right? Early 1600s, English speakers encounter the Spanish word, cucaracha. The cuca means butterfly caterpillar. I guess in Spain, those cockroaches, they have different connotations. But English speakers heard cucaracha and they transformed it into cockroach. Cock meaning "rooster" and roach being a kind of fish. So they already associated both of these syllables with animals and they turned cucaracha into cockroach. Yuck.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. Lovely.

Peter Sokolowski: Crayfish is another animal. Crayfish from the French word écrevisse, that's still the French term, écrevisse, for prawn, small lobsters. Crayfish is just an altered version of that original Anglo-French term. And crawfish is a variant of crayfish that dates back to the 1600s.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster, more on folk etymology after this break. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@M-W.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

Emily Brewster: My favorite folk etymology is the word hangnail. A hangnail is that little piece of skin that is hanging at the edge of your fingernail. It's very painful, red, inflamed. In Old English, the word agnail, I don't know that that's how they said it, but that's how I'm going to say it. That word that is the forebear of our word hangnail meant "corn on the foot."

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right. Corn as in the shape of a kernel of corn?

Emily Brewster: Yes. Right. It's the painful formation on your foot and the element that the thing that became nail didn't refer to a fingernail in that word, corn on the foot, it referred to the nail you drive with a hammer. Yeah. And the idea is that the head of an iron nail was similar to the hard corn on your foot.

Peter Sokolowski: Yikes.

Emily Brewster: By the 16th century, the association of nail with fingernails and toenails led to this new meaning of this word, hangnail, to refer to an inflammation around a fingernail or a toenail.

Peter Sokolowski: Again, the logic is kind of unimpeachable. You really can't argue it seems to be the name of the thing perfectly. And yet that's not where the word came from.

Emily Brewster: That's right. But something is lost in there. That ang that was at the beginning of hangnail of the old English word, that agnail word, is related to the word ang meaning painful. That's related to the word anger. I like to think about the impulse behind these things and to think about the way that children sometimes come up with these new terms. My just turned five-year-old daughter calls a platform a flatporm.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Emily Brewster: And we talk about these a lot because we're a big Lego family and so you need flatporms. And so the whole family is now calling these platforms, we call them flatporms and it makes so much sense because what is a platform? They're flat, they're flat pieces, and so they're flatporms.

Peter Sokolowski: Except the word plat, P-L-A-T, in French means flat.

Emily Brewster: Yes, but she does not know that yet.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. I just think it's fascinating to see these crisscrossing currents of logic and etymology.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: It's pretty great. The term helpmate, is another folk etymology, because it originally was helpmeet. And the word meet was both a noun and a verb. And the adjective meet meaning "suitable" like a "meet solution" that's archaic now, but it was in the King James Bible, for example. And so in Genesis, it says, "the Lord, God said it is not good that man should be alone. I will make a helpmeet for him." But a helpmeet... those two words being next to each other, ultimately switched, again, the gravity of this term went from meet, a rare use of that adjective to mate, meaning companion or wife. So helpmate and mate now means a friend or a member of a couple, but helpmate originally was helpmeet. And so words can sort of evolve.

Emily Brewster: Interesting. There's also Welsh rarebit.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Emily Brewster: Right? Welsh rabbit.

Ammon Shea: Welsh rabbit.

Peter Sokolowski: Rabbit.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: It's melted cheese poured over toast or crackers. And this was originally Welsh rarebit and Welsh rarebit is still an accepted term. We haven't completely lost that.

Peter Sokolowski: And there was the fact that asparagus became sparrow grass.

Emily Brewster: Oh, right. But that variant has not caught on.

Peter Sokolowski: That's archaic.

Emily Brewster: Some dialectal use of sparrow grass. I wish we still called it sparrow grass. I like that.

Peter Sokolowski: It's pretty great. So then we have this word lutestring, meaning a plain glossy silk, formerly much used for women's dresses and ribbons. So lutestring, but this word from the 17th century in English connects the term loot and its string, the stringed instrument, like a guitar that was popular, especially in the Baroque era. But actually the term lutestring comes from lustrino, the Italian word for the glossy fabric. So in other words, luster, you can hear the word luster in lustrino. It just meant shiny fabric. And it came through this logic of folk etymology to mean lutestring.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. And clearly there's some romanticism at work here.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Right?

Peter Sokolowski: It's pretty great.

Ammon Shea: Lutestring hasn't been about as successful as sparrow grass, I would say.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Right. But it makes a great story.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-webster.com.

Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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