List of common false etymologies

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This incomplete list is not intended to be exhaustive.

This is a list of current, widespread, fallacious ideas and beliefs about the origins (or etymologies) of common English words.

Obscenities[edit]

  • The word "fuck" did not originate in Christianized Anglo-Saxon England as an acronym of "Fornication Under Consent of King"; nor did it originate as an acronym of "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge", either as a sign posted above adulterers in the stocks, or as a criminal charge against members of the British Armed Forces; nor did it originate during the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt as a corruption of "pluck yew" (an idiom falsely attributed to the English for drawing a longbow).[1][2][3] Modern English was not spoken until the 16th century, and words such as "fornication" and "consent" did not exist in any form in English until the influence of Anglo-Norman in the late 12th century. The earliest recorded use of "fuck" in English comes from c. 1475, in the poem "Flen flyys", where it is spelled fuccant (conjugated as if a Latin verb meaning "they fuck"). It is of Proto-Germanic origin, and is related to Dutch fokken and Swedish fukka.[4][5][6]
  • "Fuck you/V sign" This folk etymology centers on archers who had their middle fingers removed in medieval times to keep them from properly aiming their arrows. English longbow archers caught by the enemy at Agincourt supposedly would have had their bow fingers amputated, since at that time the longbow was a devastating weapon and gave a great tactical advantage to the English. The unaffected archers could taunt the enemy by raising their index and middle fingers to show they were still intact and that the archers could still effectively "pluck yew". However, this story is untrue.
    (See the origins of the V sign for further discussion.)
  • The word "crap" did not originate as a back-formation of British plumber Thomas Crapper's surname, nor does his name originate from the word "crap", although the surname may have helped popularize the word.[7][8] The surname "Crapper" is a variant of "Cropper", which originally referred to someone who harvested crops.[9][10] The word "crap" ultimately comes from Medieval Latin crappa, meaning "chaff".[11]
  • The word "shit" did not originate as an acronym for "Ship High in Transit", a label falsely said to have been used on shipments of manure to prevent them from becoming waterlogged and releasing explosive methane gas.[3][12] The word comes from Old English scitte, and is of Proto-Germanic origin.[13][14]

Ethnic slurs[edit]

Acronyms[edit]

  • "Golf" did not originate as an acronym of "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden".[26] The word's true origin is unknown, but it existed in the Middle Scots period.[27][28]
  • Some falsely believe that the word coma originates from Cessation Of Motor Activity. Although this describes the condition of coma, this is not the true derivation.
  • "Pom" or "pommy" is an Australian English, New Zealand English, and South African English term for a person of British descent or origin. The exact origins of the term remain obscure (see here for further information). A legend persists that the term arises from the acronym P.O.M.E., for "Prisoner of Mother England" (or P.O.H.M, "Prisoners Of His/Her Majesty"), although there is no evidence to support this assertion.
  • The word news has been claimed to be an acronym of the four cardinal directions (North, East, West, and South). However, old spellings of the word varied widely (e.g., newesse, newis, nevis, neus, newys, niewes, newis, nues, etc.). Additionally, an identical term exists in French, "les nouvelles", which translates as the plural of "the new". The word "news" is simply a plural form of new.
  • Tips did not gain their name from the acronym "To Insure Prompt Service".[29] The word originated in Shelta in the 17th century and is of uncertain origin.[30]
  • There is no evidence that posh was ever an acronym for wealthy British passengers getting "Port Out, Starboard Home" cabins on ocean liners to India, in order to get ocean breeze.
  • Wog and wop: see under "Ethnic slurs"

Other[edit]

  • The city of "Melbourne" is sometimes believed to originate from its location on the southern border of a geographical climate zone of intense heat and sunlight, where melanin - a skin pigment which reacts to sunlight - is highly produced -- hence, Melbourne = melanin + bourne (limit, boundary).
  • "420" did not originate as the Los Angeles police or penal code for marijuana use.[31] Police Code 420 is "juvenile disturbance",[32] and Penal Code 420 defines the prevention, hindrance, or obstruction of legal "entry, settlement, or residence" on "any tract of public land" as a misdemeanor.[33] Some LA police codes that do relate to illegal drugs include 10-50 ("under influence of drugs"), 966 ("drug deal"), 11300 ("narcotics"), and 23105 ("driver under narcotics").[34][35]
  • The idiom "rule of thumb" is not, as some have suggested, derived from a medieval constraint on the thickness of an object with which one might beat one's wife. No such law has been uncovered.[36]
  • The word "isle" is not short for "island", nor is the word "island" an extension of "isle".[37] "Isle" comes ultimately from Latin īnsula, meaning "island"; "island" comes ultimately from Old English īegland, also meaning "island"; the words are unrelated.[38]
  • The word "handicap" did not originate as a metathetic corruption of "cap in hand" in reference to disabled beggars.[39] The word originally referred to the game hand-i'-cap, in which forfeits were placed in a cap.[40][41]
  • It is not the case that the term nasty was derived from the surname of Thomas Nast as a reference to his biting, vitriolic cartoons. The word may be related to the Dutch word nestig, or "dirty".[42] It predates Nast by several centuries, appearing in the most famous sentence of Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, that in the state of nature, the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." That work was published in 1651, whereas Nast was born in 1840.
  • A popular story claims that the conqueror Jean de Bethencourt was so impressed with the peaceful nature of the inhabitants of the island Lanzarote that he broke his lance in half, with the island's name thus being derived from lanza rota (broken lance). However, this story is unlikely, and the island is probably named after the 13th century trader Lancelotto Malocello.
  • "Hiccough", an alternate spelling still encountered for hiccup, originates in an assumption that the second syllable was originally cough. The word is in fact onomatopoeic in origin.
  • "Welsh Rarebit" has been claimed to be the original spelling of the savoury dish 'Welsh rabbit'. Both forms now have currency, though the form with rabbit is in fact the original. Furthermore, the word 'Welsh' in this context was used by the English as a slur, meaning foreign, as with French letter, and does not indicate that the dish originated in Wales.[43]
  • "scissors": the spelling reflects a belief that the word comes from Latin scindere (to tear); in fact the word is derived from Old French cisors (current French ciseaux), which comes from Latin caedere (to cut).
  • "innocent": often wrongly believed to have the original meaning of "not knowing", as if it came from Latin noscere (to know); in fact it comes from nocere (to harm), so the primary sense is "harmless".
  • "marmalade": there is an apocryphal story that Mary, Queen of Scots, ate it when she had a headache, and that the name is derived from her maids' whisper of "Marie est malade" (Mary is ill). In fact it is derived from Portuguese marmelo, meaning quince, and then expanded from quince jam to other fruit preserves. It is found in English-language sources written before Mary was even born.
  • "sirloin": an equally apocryphal story features an English king (usually identified as Charles II) conferring knighthood on a beef roast, saying "Rise, Sir Loin!" The name merely means the top of the loin (from French sur, on or above).
  • "adamant": often believed to come from Latin adamare, meaning to love to excess. In fact derived from Greek ἀδάμας, meaning indomitable. There was a further confusion about whether the substance referred to is diamond or lodestone.
  • "pumpernickel" is said to have been given the name by a French man (sometimes Napoleon) referring to his horse, Nicole—"Il étoit bon pour Nicole" ("It's good enough for Nicole"), or "C'est une pomme pour Nicole" ("it's an apple for Nicol") or "C'est du pain pour Nicole" ("it's bread for Nicole"). Some dictionaries claim a derivation from the German vernacular Pumpern (fart) and "Nick" (demon or devil) though others disagree.[44]
  • "Sword" did not come from "God's word" ('sword) as a minced oath (in the same way that 'sblood is "God's blood"). This confusion could come from the fact that God's word in the bible is said to be "sharper than any two-edged sword", and would hence relate to the Christian origins of many English words.
  • "Woman" did not originate from "woven from man". It came from the old English "wiffmann", meaning "female person". "Wermann", the word for a male, was shortened to "mann" (now it is spelled "man"), and "wiffman" was developed into "woman."
  • "Sincere" does not originate from Latin sine cera, without wax.[45]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (July 8, 2007). "What the Fuck?". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  2. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (July 9, 2007). "Pluck Yew". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c Douglas Harper (2010). "Ingenious Trifling". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  4. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Fuck". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  5. ^ "Fuck". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Fuck". Webster's New World College Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  7. ^ Michael Quinion (2011). "Crap". World Wide Words. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  8. ^ "Thomas Crapper". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. May 31, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  9. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Crap". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  10. ^ "Cropper". Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press. 2003. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  11. ^ "Crap". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  12. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (July 8, 2007). "Shit Faced". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Shit". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  14. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Shit". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  15. ^ "Gringo". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 2001. 
  16. ^ "Spic". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  17. ^ "Wop". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  18. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Cracker (2)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  19. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (March 18, 2008). "Picnic Pique". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Picnic". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  21. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Picnic". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  22. ^ "Passing the Buck". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 12, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  23. ^ "Buck". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  24. ^ "Crowbar". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 12, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Crow". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  26. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (October 10, 2006). "Golf Carte". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  27. ^ "Golf". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  28. ^ "Golf". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  29. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (May 30, 2010). "Tip Sheet". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  30. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Tip". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  31. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (June 13, 2008). "420". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  32. ^ "Radio Codes & Signals – California". National Communications Magazine. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  33. ^ "California Penal Code Section 420". January 15, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  34. ^ "Police 10/11 and Penal Codes". RadioLabs. RadioLabs International Inc. 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  35. ^ Alfred F. Matthews, Jr. (2009). "Police Scanner 10 Codes...". You Get Info. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  36. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved January 13, 2013. 
  37. ^ "Island". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  38. ^ "Island". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  39. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (June 16, 2011). "Handicaprice". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  40. ^ "Handicap". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  41. ^ "Handicap". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  42. ^ About.com article on etymology of "nasty"
  43. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  44. ^ [1]
  45. ^ http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sincere&allowed_in_frame=0