List of common false etymologies of English words

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This incomplete list is not intended to be exhaustive.

This is a list of common contemporary false etymologies for English words.

Obscenities[edit]

Ethnic slurs[edit]

  • Cracker: The use of "cracker" as a pejorative term for a white person does not come from the use of bullwhips by whites against slaves in the Atlantic slave trade. The term comes from the labor of cracking corn (as referred to in the song Jimmy Crack Corn) and was used as a pejorative term for a southern sharecropper who grew and milled corn for a living. The cracked corn – or nib – was the hard bit of the kernel discarded from milled corn. The nib was considered undesirable and the sharecropper would take this as his share and feed his family.[15]
  • Gringo: The word "gringo" (a pejorative term for a white American) did not originate during the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), the Venezuelan War of Independence (1811–1823), the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), or in the American Old West (c. 1865–1899) as a corruption of the lyrics "green grow" in either "Green Grow the Lilacs" or "Green Grow the Rushes, O" sung by American soldiers or cowboys; nor did it originate during any of these times as a corruption of "Green go home!", falsely said to have been shouted at green-clad American troops, or of "green coats" as a description of their uniforms. The word originally simply meant "foreigner" and is probably a corruption of Spanish griego, "Greek".[16]
  • Niggardly: The word "niggardly", meaning stingy or miserly, is not actually related to the racial slur "nigger", despite the similar sound. Like "niggle", it may derive from Old Norse nigla, meaning "to fuss about small matters";[17] alternatively, it may derive from another Germanic root meaning "exact" or "careful".[18] Meanwhile, "nigger", like "Negro", traces back to Latin niger, meaning "black".[19]
  • Spic: The word "spic" (a pejorative term for a Latino) did not originate as an abbreviation of "Hispanic"; nor as an acronym for "Spanish, Indian, and Colored" (in reference to minority races in the United States); nor as an acronym for "Spanish, Polish, Italian, and Chinese", falsely said to have been used by U.S. immigration officials in the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s to categorize citizenship applications. The word, originally spelled "spig", was short for "spiggoty", which is probably from the Spanglish phrase "No speak the English".[20]
  • Wog: The cacophemism "wog", for a foreigner or coloured person, is sometimes believed to be an acronym for "wily Oriental gentleman". It is more likely to be a shortening of "golliwog".[21]
  • Wop: The word "wop" (a pejorative term for an Italian) was not originally an acronym for "without passport"[8] or "working off passage". It is a corruption of dialectal Italian guappo, "thug".[22]

Acronyms[edit]

The use of acronyms to create new words was nearly non-existent in English until the middle of the 20th century. Nearly all older words were formed in other ways.[23]

  • Coma: 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. The word is actually derived from the Greek kōma, meaning deep sleep.[24]
  • Fuck: see under "Obscenities"
  • Golf did not originate as an acronym of "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden".[25] The word's true origin is unknown, but it existed in the Middle Scots period.[26][27]
  • News: 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.
  • 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.
  • Posh was not an acronym for wealthy British passengers getting "port out, starboard home" cabins on ocean liners to India, in order to get ocean breeze. The actual origins of the word are unknown.
  • Shit: see under "Obscenities"
  • Swag is not an acronym for "stuff we all get", "secretly we are gay" or anything else. It comes from early 19th century slang for a thief's booty or loot.[28][29]
  • Tips did not gain their name from the phrase "to insure prompt service".[30] The word originated in Shelta in the 17th century and is of uncertain origin.[31]
  • Wog and wop: see under "Ethnic slurs"

Idioms[edit]

  • "Rule of thumb" is not derived from a medieval constraint on the thickness of an object with which one might beat one's wife.[32][33] More likely it means that the thumb can be used to measure an approximate inch.[34]
  • Whole Nine Yards: The actual origin of the phrase "the whole nine yards" is a mystery, and nearly all claimed explanations are easily proven false. Incorrect explanations include the length of machine gun belts, the capacity of concrete mixers (in cubic yards), various types of fabric, and many other explanations. All are probably false, since most rely on nine yards when evidence suggests that the phrase began as "the whole six yards". In addition, the phrase has appeared in print as early as 1907, while many explanations require a much later origin date.

Other[edit]

  • "420" did not originate as the Los Angeles police or penal code for marijuana use.[35] Police Code 420 is "juvenile disturbance",[36] 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.[37] 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").[38][39]
  • "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.
  • Buck: The use of "buck" to mean "dollar" did not originate from a practice of referring to African slaves as "bucks" (male deer) when trading.[40] "Buck" was originally short for "buckskin", as buckskins were used in trade.[41]
  • Butterfly: The word "butterfly" did not originate from "flutterby". It comes from the Middle English word butterflye, which in turn comes from the Old English word butorflēoge.[42][43][44]
  • Crowbar: A "crowbar" is not so named for its use by Black menial workers.[45] The name comes from the forked end of a crowbar, which resembles a crow's foot.[46]
  • Emoji: These pictographic characters are often mistakenly believed to be a simplified form of the word emoticon, itself a portmanteau of "emotional icon".[citation needed] However, emoji is a Japanese term composed from "e" (image) and "moji" (character).[47]
  • Faggot: The slur usage of the word "faggot" (originally referring to a bundle of firewood) is sometimes falsely claimed to come from a practice of throwing homosexuals into a fire to be burned to death, as they were not important enough to be burned at the stake. One possible origin is in the use of "faggot" as a pejorative term for women in a similar way to "baggage", i.e. something heavy to be dealt with.[citation needed] The usage may also have been influenced by the British term "fag", meaning a younger schoolboy who acts as an older schoolboy's servant.[48]
  • Handicap: The word "handicap" did not originate as a metathetic corruption of "cap in hand" in reference to disabled beggars.[49] The word originally referred to the game hand-i'-cap, in which forfeits were placed in a cap to equalize the game.[50][51]
  • 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.
  • Idiot does come from the ancient Greek word ἰδιώτης (idiōtēs, "a private person, individual"), but it was not derogatory in Greek, and did not express the notion that it was foolish ("idiotic") not to participate in civic life. Indeed, a citizen (πολίτης) was an ἰδιώτης when acting in a private rather than an official capacity, even in deliberations of the Assembly. The meaning "foolish" or "stupid" came much later.[52]
  • "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".
  • Isle and Island: The word "isle" is not short for "island", nor is the word "island" an extension of "isle"; the words are unrelated.[53][54] "Isle" comes ultimately from Latin īnsula, meaning "island"; "island" comes ultimately from Old English īegland, also meaning "island", or technically "island land" (cf. Icelandic ey "island"). The spelling island with an S, however, is indeed due to the influence of isle.
  • "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.[55]
  • Nasty: The term nasty was not 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".[56] 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.
  • Picnic: The word "picnic" did not originate as an abbreviation of "pick a nigger", a phrase falsely claimed to have been used by white families at community lynchings in the 19th century.[57] "Picnic" comes from 17th-century French piquenique, which is of uncertain origin.[58][59]
  • "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 was good enough for Nicole"), or "C'est une pomme pour Nicole" ("It's an apple for Nicole") 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.[60]
  • "Sincere" does not originate from Latin sine cera ("without wax"), but from sincerus ("true, genuine").[61]
  • "Snob" does not originate from Latin sine nobilitate ("without nobility").[62]
  • "Till" is not an abbreviation of "until",[63] though the increasingly common spelling 'til is a result of this misconception. In fact, "till" is the older word; "until" is a compound of "till" and the Old Norse prefix "und-" ("up to", "as far as""[64]), just as "unto" is a compound of that prefix and "to".[65]
  • "Woman" did not originate from "woven from man", nor did it originate from the word "womb". It came from the Old English wifmann ("woman person"), a compound of wif ("woman" – cf. "wife") + man ("human being"). Mann, the word for "person", eventually came to be used for males specifically.
  • "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 in a pejorative sense, meaning "foreign" or "substandard", and does not indicate that the dish originated in Wales.[66]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Michael Quinion (2011). "Crap". World Wide Words. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  2. ^ "Thomas Crapper". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. May 31, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  3. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Crap". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  4. ^ "Cropper". Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press. 2003. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  5. ^ "Crap". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Archived from the original on October 21, 2005. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  6. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (July 8, 2007). "What the Fuck?". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  7. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (July 9, 2007). "Pluck Yew". Snopes.com¨. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Douglas Harper (2010). "Ingenious Trifling". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  9. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Fuck". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  10. ^ "Fuck". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  11. ^ "Fuck". Webster's New World College Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons. 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. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Cracker (2)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  16. ^ "Gringo". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 2001. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  17. ^ "niggle - Origin and meaning of niggle by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  18. ^ "niggard - Origin and meaning of niggard by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  19. ^ "nigger - Origin and meaning of nigger by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  20. ^ "Spic". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  21. ^ "wog - Origin and meaning of wog by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  22. ^ "Wop". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  23. ^ Keith M. Denning et al., English Vocabulary Elements, 2007 ISBN 0198037538, p. 60
  24. ^ "Coma Definition". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 16 January 2015.
  25. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (October 10, 2006). "Golf Carte". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  26. ^ "Golf". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  27. ^ "Golf". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Archived from the original on May 1, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  28. ^ "Etymology of Swag". snopes.com. 2014-09-17. Retrieved 2017-01-21.
  29. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2017-01-21.
  30. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (May 30, 2010). "Tip Sheet". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  31. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Tip". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  32. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved January 13, 2013.
  33. ^ "World Wide Words: Rule of thumb". Quinion.com. 1999-11-13. Retrieved 2015-07-12.
  34. ^ "thumb - Origin and meaning of thumb by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  35. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (June 13, 2008). "420". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  36. ^ "Radio Codes & Signals – California". National Communications Magazine. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  37. ^ "California Penal Code Section 420". January 15, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  38. ^ "Police 10/11 and Penal Codes". RadioLabs. RadioLabs International Inc. 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  39. ^ Alfred F. Matthews, Jr. (2009). "Police Scanner 10 Codes..." You Get Info. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  40. ^ "Passing the Buck". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 12, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  41. ^ "Buck". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001.
  42. ^ "The American Heritage Dictionary entry: butterfly". ahdictionary.com. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
  43. ^ "Definition of butterfly in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
  44. ^ "Origin and meaning of butterfly by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
  45. ^ "Crowbar". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 12, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  46. ^ "Crow". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001.
  47. ^ "emoji (n.)". https://www.etymonline.com. External link in |website= (help)
  48. ^ "faggot - Origin and meaning of faggot by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  49. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (June 16, 2011). "Handicaprice". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  50. ^ "Handicap". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Archived from the original on October 13, 2005. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  51. ^ "Handicap". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  52. ^ A.W. Sparkes, "Idiots, Ancient and Modern", Australian Journal of Political Science 23:1:101-102 (1988) doi:10.1080/00323268808402051
  53. ^ "Island". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  54. ^ "Island". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Archived from the original on July 1, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  55. ^ "World Wide Words: Marmalade". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2016-07-13.
  56. ^ "German Myth 3 – Thomas Nast and the word 'nasty'". Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  57. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (March 18, 2008). "Picnic Pique". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  58. ^ "Picnic". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001.
  59. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Picnic". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  60. ^ "snopes2.com". snopes2.com. Retrieved 2017-01-21.
  61. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2017-01-21.
  62. ^ "What is the origin of the word 'snob'?". Retrieved December 21, 2014.
  63. ^ "till - Origin and meaning of till by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  64. ^ "until". Oxford English Dictionary. XIX (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. 1989. p. 234.
  65. ^ "until - Origin and meaning of until by Online Etymology Dictionary". www.etymonline.com.
  66. ^ Oxford English Dictionary