Language is a habit. We get so used to familiar sounds and words that unfamiliar ones are sometimes bent and twisted to make them seem logical to our ears. This orthographic or phonetic violence is unintentional, innocent, and usually transparent once it’s pointed out: the French borrowing chaise longue is unnatural for most English speakers, and the shift to chaise lounge has the unimpeachable linguistic advantage of seeming both more English and logical.
But language, much to the chagrin of us all, is not logical.
This gravitational pull toward a familiar or logical spelling or sound is called folk etymology, defined as “the transformation of words so as to give them an apparent relationship to better-known or better-understood words.” For example, when asparagus was introduced in England in the 16th century, its Latinate name was often rendered as sparagrass, which quickly became sparrowgrass, a compound of two English words that had nothing to do with either the actual plant or the original word.
This process is also sometimes called corruption, defined as “change in form often consisting of substitution of the familiar for the unfamiliar or adaptation to the sound system of a language.”
Let’s look as some common and surprising examples of this phenomenon.