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 current, widespread, fallacious ideas and beliefs about the origins (or etymologies) of common 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 and used as a pejorative term for a southern share cropper 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. Popularize in a song "Jimmy Cracked Corn and I Don't Care."[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;[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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. Niggardly ultimately traces back to Old Norse nigla, meaning "to fuss about small matters", while nigger traces back to Latin niger, meaning black.
  • 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".[17]
  • 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".
  • 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".[18]

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.

  • 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.[19]
  • Golf did not originate as an acronym of "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden".[20] The word's true origin is unknown, but it existed in the Middle Scots period.[21][22]
  • 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 on 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.
  • 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.[23][24]
  • Tips did not gain their name from the acronym "To Insure Prompt Service".[25] The word originated in Shelta in the 17th century and is of uncertain origin.[26]
  • Wog and wop: see under "Ethnic slurs"

Place names[edit]

  • Melbourne: 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). In fact it was named for Lord Melbourne, Britain's Prime Minister at the time.
  • Lanzarote: 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.

Idioms[edit]

  • "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.[27]
  • Whole Nine Yards: The actual origins of the phrase "The whole nine yards" is a complete mystery, and nearly all claimed explanations are easily proved 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 provably 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.[28] Police Code 420 is "juvenile disturbance",[29] 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.[30] 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").[31][32]
  • "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.[33] "Buck" was originally short for "buckskin", as buckskins were used in trade.[34]
  • Crowbar: A "crowbar" is not so named for its use by Black menial workers.[35] The name comes from the forked end of a crowbar, which resembles a crow's foot.[36]
  • Handicap: The word "handicap" did not originate as a metathetic corruption of "cap in hand" in reference to disabled beggars.[37] The word originally referred to the game hand-i'-cap, in which forfeits were placed in a cap.[38][39]
  • "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.
  • "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".[40] "Isle" comes ultimately from Latin īnsula, meaning "island"; "island" comes ultimately from Old English īegland, also meaning "island." Aside from the shared Indo-European identity of their respective languages of origin, these words are unrelated.[41] The spelling island, 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.[42]
  • 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".[43] 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.[44] "Picnic" comes from 17th-century French piquenique, which is of uncertain origin.[45][46]
  • "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.[47]
  • "Sincere" does not originate from Latin sine cera, without wax.[48]
  • "Snob" does not originate from Latin sine nobilitate, without nobility.[49]
  • "Woman" did not originate from "woven from man", nor did it originate from the word womb. 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."
  • "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.[50]

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. 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. 
  17. ^ "Spic". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  18. ^ "Wop". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  19. ^ "Coma Definition". Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 16 January 2015. 
  20. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (October 10, 2006). "Golf Carte". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  21. ^ "Golf". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  22. ^ "Golf". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  23. ^ http://www.snopes.com/language/acronyms/swag.asp
  24. ^ http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=swag
  25. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (May 30, 2010). "Tip Sheet". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  26. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Tip". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  27. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary". Retrieved January 13, 2013. 
  28. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (June 13, 2008). "420". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  29. ^ "Radio Codes & Signals – California". National Communications Magazine. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  30. ^ "California Penal Code Section 420". January 15, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  31. ^ "Police 10/11 and Penal Codes". RadioLabs. RadioLabs International Inc. 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  32. ^ Alfred F. Matthews, Jr. (2009). "Police Scanner 10 Codes...". You Get Info. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  33. ^ "Passing the Buck". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 12, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  34. ^ "Buck". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  35. ^ "Crowbar". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. July 12, 2007. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  36. ^ "Crow". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  37. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (June 16, 2011). "Handicaprice". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  38. ^ "Handicap". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  39. ^ "Handicap". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  40. ^ "Island". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  41. ^ "Island". Merriam–Webster. Merriam–Webster, Inc. 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  42. ^ "World Wide Words: Marmalade". World Wide Words. Retrieved 2016-07-13. 
  43. ^ About.com article on etymology of "nasty"
  44. ^ Barbara Mikkelson (March 18, 2008). "Picnic Pique". Snopes.com. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  45. ^ "Picnic". American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin. 2001. 
  46. ^ Douglas Harper (2010). "Picnic". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved June 17, 2011. 
  47. ^ [1]
  48. ^ http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=sincere&allowed_in_frame=0
  49. ^ "What is the origin of the word 'snob'?". Retrieved December 21, 2014. 
  50. ^ Oxford English Dictionary