Rahul Sharma (Editor)

Folk etymology

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Folk etymology or reanalysis – sometimes called pseudo-etymology, popular etymology, or analogical reformation – is a change in a word or phrase resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familiar one. The form or the meaning of an archaic, foreign, or otherwise unfamiliar word is reanalyzed as resembling more familiar words or morphemes. Rebracketing is a form of folk etymology in which a word is broken down or "bracketed" into a new set of supposed elements. Back-formation, creating a new word by removing or changing parts of an existing word, is often based on folk etymology.


The term folk etymology is a loan translation from German Volksetymologie, coined by Ernst Förstemann in 1852.

Folk etymology is a productive process in historical linguistics and language change. Reanalysis of a word's history or original form can affect its spelling, pronunciation, or meaning. This is frequently seen in relation to loanwords or words that have become archaic or obsolete.

Examples of words created or changed through folk etymology include the English dialectal form sparrowgrass, originally from Greek ἀσπάραγος ("asparagus") remade by analogy to the more familiar words sparrow and grass, or the word burger, originally from Hamburg + -er ("thing connected with"), but understood as ham + burger.

Productive force

The technical term "folk etymology" refers to a change in the form of a word caused by erroneous popular beliefs about its derivation. The English word is a translation of the German term Volksetymologie, coined by Ernst Förstemann. Förstemann noted that in addition to scientific etymology based on careful study in philology, there exist scholarly but often unsystematic accounts, as well as popular accounts for the history of linguistic forms. Until academic linguists developed comparative philology and described the laws underlying sound changes, the derivation of words was a matter mostly of guess-work. Speculation about the original form of words in turn feeds back into the development of the word and thus becomes a part of a new etymology.

Believing a word to have a certain origin, people begin to pronounce, spell, or otherwise use the word in a manner appropriate to that perceived origin. This popular etymologizing has had a powerful influence on the forms which words take. Examples in English include crayfish or crawfish, which are not historically related to fish but come from Middle English crevis, cognate with French écrevisse. Likewise chaise lounge, from the original French chaise longue ("long chair"), has come to be associated with the word lounge.


Rebracketing is a process of language change in which parts of a word that appear to be meaningful (such as *ham in hamburger) are mistaken as elements of the word's etymology (in this case, the word ham). Rebracketing functions by reanalyzing the constituent parts of a word. For example, the Old French word orenge ("orange tree") comes from Arabic النرنجan nāranj ("the orange tree"), with the initial n of nāranj understood as part of the article.

In back-formation a new word is created, often by removing elements thought to be affixes. For example, Italian pronuncia ("pronunciation; accent") is derived from the verb pronunciare ("to pronounce; to utter") and English edit derives from editor. Some cases of back-formation are based on folk etymology.

Examples in English

In linguistic change caused by folk etymology, the form of a word changes so that it better matches its popular rationalisation. Typically this happens either to unanalyzable foreign words or to compounds where the word underlying one part of the compound becomes obsolete.


There are many examples of words borrowed from foreign languages, and subsequently changed by folk etymology.

The spelling of many borrowed words reflects folk etymology. For example, andiron borrowed from Old French was variously spelled aundyre or aundiren in Middle English, but was altered by association with iron. Other Old French loans altered in a similar manner include belfry (from berfrei) by association with bell, female (from femelle) by male, and penthouse (from apentis) by house. The variant spelling of licorice as liquorice comes from the supposition that it has something to do with liquid. Anglo-Norman licoris (influenced by licor "liquor") and Late Latin liquirītia were respelled for similar reasons, though the ultimate origin of all three is Greek γλυκύρριζα (glycyrrhiza) "sweet root".

Reanalysis of loan words can affect their spelling, pronunciation, or meaning. The word cockroach, for example, was borrowed from Spanish cucaracha but was assimilated to the existing English words cock and roach. Jerusalem artichoke, from Italian girasole, is a kind of sunflower; it is not related to artichokes and does not come from Jerusalem. The phrase forlorn hope originally meant "storming party, body of skirmishers" from Dutch verloren hoop "lost troop". But confusion with English hope has given the term an additional meaning of "hopeless venture".

Sometimes imaginative stories are created to account for the link between a borrowed word and its popularly assumed sources. The names of the serviceberry, service tree, and related plants, for instance, come from the Latin name sorbus. The plants were called syrfe in Old English, which eventually became service. Fanciful stories suggest that the name comes from the fact that the trees bloom in spring, a time when circuit-riding preachers resume church services or when funeral services are carried out for people who died during the winter.

A seemingly plausible but no less speculative etymology accounts for the form of Welsh rarebit, a dish made of cheese and toasted bread. The earliest known reference to the dish in 1725 called it Welsh rabbit. The origin of that name is unknown, but presumably humorous, since the dish contains no rabbit. In 1785 Francis Grose suggested in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue that the dish is "a Welch rare bit", though the word rarebit was not common prior to Grose's dictionary. Both versions of the name are in current use; individuals sometimes express strong opinions concerning which version is correct.

Obsolete forms

When a word or other form becomes obsolete, words or phrases containing the obsolete portion may be reanalyzed and changed.

Some compound words from Old English were reanalyzed in Middle or Modern English when one of the constituent words fell out of use. Examples include bridegroom from Old English brydguma "bride-man". The word gome "man" from Old English guma fell out of use during the sixteenth century and the compound was eventually reanalyzed with the Modern English word groom "male servant". A similar reanalysis caused sandblind, from Old English sāmblind "half-blind" with a once-common prefix sām- "semi-", to be respelled as though it is related to sand. The word island derives from Old English igland. The modern spelling with the letter s is the result of comparison with the synonym isle from Old French and ultimately Latin insula, though the Old French and Old English words are not historically related. In a similar way, the spelling of wormwood was likely affected by comparison with wood.

The phrase curry favour, meaning to flatter, comes from Middle English curry favel, "groom a chestnut horse". This was an allusion to a fourteenth century French morality poem, Roman de Fauvel, about a chestnut-colored horse who corrupts men through duplicity. The phrase was reanalyzed in early Modern English by comparison to favour as early as 1510.

Words need not completely disappear before their compounds are reanalyzed. The word shamefaced was originally shamefast. The original meaning of fast "fixed in place" still exists but mainly in frozen expressions such as stuck fast, hold fast, and play fast and loose. The songbird wheatear or white-ear is a back-formation from Middle English whit-ers "white arse", referring to the prominent white rump found in most species. Although both white and arse are common in Modern English, the folk etymology may be euphemism.

Reanalysis of archaic or obsolete forms can lead to changes in meaning as well. The original meaning of hangnail referred to a corn on the foot. The word comes from Old English ang- + nægel ("anguished nail" or "compressed spike"), but the spelling and pronunciation were affected by folk etymology in the seventeenth century or earlier. Thereafter, the word came to be used for a tag of skin or torn cuticle near a fingernail or toenail.

Other languages

Several words in Medieval Latin were subject to folk etymology. For example, the word widerdonum meaning "reward" was borrowed from Old High German widarlōn "repayment of a loan". The l  d alteration is due to confusion with Latin donum "gift". Similarly, the word baceler or bacheler (related to modern English bachelor) referred to a junior knight. It is attested from the eleventh century, though its ultimate origin is uncertain. By the late Middle Ages its meaning was extended to the holder of a university degree inferior to master or doctor. This was later re-spelled baccalaureus, probably reflecting a false derivation from bacca laurea "laurel berry", alluding to the possible laurel crown of a poet or conqueror.

In the fourteenth or fifteenth century French scholars began to spell the verb savoir ("to know") as sçavoir on the false belief it was derived from Latin scire "to know". In fact it comes from sapere "to be wise".

The Italian word liocorno "unicorn" derives from 13th century lunicorno (lo "the" + unicorno "unicorn"). Folk etymology based on lione "lion" altered the spelling and pronunciation. Dialectal liofante "elephant" was likewise altered from elefante by association with lione.

The Dutch word for "hammock" is hangmat. It was borrowed from Spanish hamaca (ultimately from Arawak amàca) and altered by comparison with hangen and mat, "hanging mat". German Hängematte shares this folk etymology.

The Finnish compound word for "jealous" mustasukkainen literally means "black-socked" (musta "black" and sukka "sock"). However, the word is a case of a misunderstood loan translation from Swedish svartsjuk "black-sick". The Finnish word sukka fit with a close phonological equivalent to the Swedish sjuk

Islambol, a folk etymology meaning "full of Islam", is one of the names of Istanbul used after the Ottoman conquest of 1453.

An example from Persian is the word shatranj (chess), which is derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga (2nd century BCE), and after losing the "u" to syncope, becomes chatrang in Middle Persian (6th century CE). Today it is sometimes factorized as shat (hundred) + ranj (worry / mood), or "a hundred worries".


Folk etymology Wikipedia