False etymology

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A false etymology (pseudoetymology, paraetymology or paretymology), sometimes called folk etymology although this is also a technical term in linguistics, is a popularly held but false belief about the origins of specific words, often originating in "common-sense" assumptions.

Such etymologies often have the feel of urban legends, and can be much more colorful than the typical etymologies found in dictionaries, often involving stories of unusual practices in particular subcultures (e.g. Oxford students from non-noble families being supposedly forced to write sine nobilitate by their name, soon abbreviated to s.nob., hence the word snob).[1][2] Many recent examples are "backronyms" (acronyms made up to explain a term), as in "snob", and "posh" for "port outward, starboard homeward"; many other sourced examples are listed in the article on backronyms.

Source and influence of false etymologies[edit]

Erroneous etymologies can exist for many reasons. Some are reasonable interpretations of the evidence that happen to be false. For a given word there may often have been many serious attempts by scholars to propose etymologies based on the best information available at the time, and these can be later modified or rejected as linguistic scholarship advances. The results of medieval etymology, for example, were plausible given the insights available at the time, but have mostly[citation needed] been rejected by modern linguists. The etymologies of humanist scholars in the early modern period began to produce more reliable results, but many of their hypotheses have been superseded. Other false etymologies are the result of specious and untrustworthy claims made by individuals, such as the claim made by Daniel Cassidy that hundreds of common English words such as baloney, bunkum and grumble derive from Irish.[3][4]

Association with urban legends[edit]

Some etymologies are part of urban legends, and seem to respond to a general taste for the surprising, counterintuitive and even scandalous. One common example has to do with the phrase rule of thumb, meaning a rough measurement. An urban legend has it that the phrase refers to an old English law under which a man could legally beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb (though no such law ever existed).[5]

In the United States, some of these scandalous legends have had to do with racism and slavery; common words such as picnic,[6] buck,[7] and crowbar[8] have been alleged to stem from derogatory terms or racist practices. The "discovery" of these alleged etymologies is often believed by those who circulate them to draw attention to racist attitudes embedded in ordinary discourse. On one occasion, the use of the word niggardly led to the resignation of a U.S. public official because it sounded similar to the word nigger, despite the two words being unrelated etymologically.[9]

See also[edit]