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A 'false” or “folk” etymology is an assumed or postulated etymology that current consensus among scholars of historical linguistics holds to be incorrect. Many false etymologies may be described as “folk etymologies,” the distinction being simply that folk etymologies are widely believed to be true, and of anonymous origin. "Folk etymology" or "popular etymology" is an established term for a false etymology which grows up anonymously in popular lore. A modern folk etymology may be thought of as a linguistic urban legend, but folk etymologies can be very old and even establish themselves as accepted fact among scholars.

The term may be used in two distinct ways:

  • A commonly held misunderstanding of the origin of a particular word, a false etymology.
  • "The popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant"[1]; "the process by which a word or phrase, usually one of seemingly opaque formation, is arbitrarily reshaped so as to yield a form which is considered to be more transparent."[2]

Erroneous etymologies can exist for many reasons. Some are simply outdated. 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 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scholars in the early modern period began to produce more reliable results, but many of their hypotheses have been superseded. Even today, knowledge in the field advances so rapidly that many of the etymologies in contemporary dictionaries are outdated.

False etymologies are a consequence of the longstanding interest in putatively original, and therefore normative, meanings of words, a characteristic of logocentrism. Until academic linguistics developed the comparative study of philology and the development of the laws underlying sound changes, the derivation of words was a matter mostly of guess-work, sometimes right but more often wrong, based on superficial resemblances of form and the like. This popular etymology has had a powerful influence on the forms which words take (e.g. crawfish or crayfish, from the French crevis, modern crevisse, and has frequently been the occasion of homonyms resulting from different etymologies for what appears a single word, with the original meaning(s) reflecting the true etymology and the new meaning(s) reflecting the 'incorrect' popular etymology.

The term "folk etymology", as referring both to erroneous beliefs about derivation and the consequent changes to words, is derived from the German Volksetymologie. Similar terms are found in other languages, e.g. Volksetymologie itself in Dutch, Afrikaans Volksetimologie, Danish Folkeetymologi, Swedish Folketymologi, and full parallels in non-Germanic languages, e.g. French étymologie populaire, Hungarian népetimológia; an example of an alternative name is Italian pseudoetimologia.

Folk etymology becomes especially interesting when it feeds back into the development of the word and thus becomes a part of the true etymology. Because a population wrongly believes a word to have a certain origin, they begin to pronounce or use the word in a manner appropriate to that perceived origin, in a kind of misplaced pedantry. Thus a new standard form of the word appears which has been influenced by the misconception. In such cases it is often said that the form of the word has been "altered by folk etymology". (Less commonly, but found in the etymological sections of the OED, one might read that the word was altered by pseudo-etymology, or false etymology.) Pyles and Algeo give the example of “chester drawers” for “chest of drawers;” similarly, “chase lounge” for “chaise longue.”

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).[3] The same idiom exists in other cultures – in Finland as "nyrkkisääntö" and in German-speaking countries as "Faustregal"; both mean "rule of fist.”

In the United States, many of these scandalous legends have had to do with racism and slavery. Common words such as picnic,[4] buck,[5] and crowbar[6] 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.[7]

Another false etymology claims that the term cracker dates back to slavery in the antebellum South. This is based on tales of overseers using bullwhips to discipline African slaves, with the sound of the whip described as "cracking". However, there is no evidence of this usage prior to the 20th-century, suggesting this is a neologism created through cultural assumptions. The term actually has much older origins in the British Isles, based on a term for braggarts.[8][9]

Examples of words modified by folk etymology[edit]

  • Old English bryd-guma ("bride-man") became bridegroom after the Old English word guma fell out of use and made the compound semantically obscure.
  • The silent s in island is a result of folk etymology. This native Anglo-Saxon word, at one time spelled iland, derives from an Old English compound of īeg or īg + land, but was erroneously believed to be related to "isle", which had come to English via Old French from Latin insula ("island"; cf. Modern Spanish isla). Old English īeg, īg derives from Germanic *aujō = "object on the water", from earlier Germanic *agwjō, and is akin to Old English ēa = "water", "river", from prehistoric Germanic *ahwō. Hence through *ahwō, island is related, not to Latin insula, but rather to Latin aqua ("water"). (For a use of ēa, see Eton, Berkshire, Origin of the Name.).

More recent examples:

Other changes due to folk etymology include:

When a back-formation rests on a misunderstanding of the morphology of the original word, it may be regarded as a kind of folk etymology.

In heraldry, a rebus coat-of-arms (which expresses a name by one or more elements only significant by virtue of the supposed etymology) may reinforce a folk etymology for a noun proper, usually of a place.

The same process sometimes influences the spelling of proper names. The name Antony/Anthony is often spelled with an "h" because of the Elizabethan belief that it is derived from Greek ανθος (flower). In fact it is a Roman family name, probably meaning something like "ancient".

Further examples[edit]

See the following articles that discuss folk etymologies for their subjects:

Other languages[edit]

The French verb savoir (to know) was formerly spelled sçavoir, in order to link it with the Latin scire (to know). In fact it is derived from sapere (to be wise).

The spelling of the English word posthumous reflects a belief that it is derived from Latin post humum, literally "after the earth", in other words after burial. In fact the Latin postumus is an old superlative of post (after), formed in the same way as optimus and ultimus.

The spelling of the English word lethal reflects a belief that it is derived from Lethe, the river in the mythological kingdom of the dead. In fact it comes from the unconnected Latin word letum, meaning death.

In British English, aubergines are sometimes called "mad apples". The Italian word for the aubergine is melanzana, which was misheard as mela insana.

Medieval Latin has a word, bachelarius (bachelor), of uncertain origin, referring to a junior knight, and by extension to the holder of a University degree inferior to Master or Doctor. This was later re-spelled baccalaureus to reflect a false derivation from bacca laurea (laurel berry), alluding to the possible laurel crown of a poet or conqueror.

Olisipona (Lisbon) was explained as deriving from the city's supposed foundation by Ulysses (Odysseus), though the settlement certainly antedates any Greek presence.

In Southern Italy in the Greek period there was a city Maloeis (gen. Maloentos), meaning "fruitful". This was rendered in Latin as Maleventum, "ill come" or "ill wind", and renamed Beneventum ("well come" or "good wind") after the Roman conquest.

In the Alexandrian period, and in the Renaissance, many (wrongly) explained the name of the god Kronos as being derived from chronos (time), and interpreted the myth of his swallowing his children as an allegory meaning that Time consumes all things.

The American Grizzly bear is so named because its hair is grizzled or silver-tipped, but its name was later mistakenly derived from grisly meaning “horrible”. This error has been perpetuated in the grizzly bear's scientific trinomial name: Ursus arctos horribilis.

Acceptability of resulting forms[edit]

The question of whether the resulting usage is "correct" or "incorrect" depends on one's notion of correctness; at any rate it is a separate issue from the question of whether the assumed etymology is correct. When a confused understanding of etymology produces a new form today, there is typically resistance to it on the part of those who see through the confusion, but there is no question of long-established words being considered wrong because folk etymology has affected them. Chaise lounge and Welsh rarebit are disparaged by many, but shamefaced and buttonhole are universally accepted. See prescription and description.

Influence on spelling[edit]

Over the course of time, many words have been altered in order to better reflect false Latin or Greek etymologies. Island (previously iland) and ptarmigan (previously tarmigan) are two such words. See English spelling reform—successes in spelling complication.

Special Cases[edit]

Deliberately False Etymologies[edit]

Incorrect etymologies have sometimes been created for purposes of propaganda. The opponents of the medieval Dominicans joked that Dominicani was derived from domini canes ("God's dogs").

People sometimes create etymologies to make a political point. The feminist term herstory implies, presumably with tongue-in-cheek, an etymology of “history” as “his story,” with the effect, and probably the intention, of pointing up the male domination of the writing of history. Similarly, the term womanipulate[1] for manipulate as man-ipulate (actually Latin manipulare, "to handle", from manus, "hand") was created in the same way.


A backronym (portmanteau term for “back-formation and acronym is a special case of false etymology in which an existing word or acronym is provided with a spurious origin. Many of these can be invalidated as anachronistic – the putative terms providing the initialism may not have been in existence at the time of the word’s first appearance, or the backronym may assume a historically unwarranted regularity of spelling. For example:

  • F.U.C.K. (for fuck). There is an urban legend which states that the term "fuck" originated as an acronym, standing for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge". According to this etymology, adulterers in medieval England would be charged with the crime of unlawful carnal knowledge. After a while the charge was shortened on the charge sheet to "F.U.C.K.", and so the term came to mean the act of adultery. There are a number of variations on this theme—the same acronym, it is claimed, was posted on stocks where adulterers were publicly humiliated. Another variation suggests that F.U.C.K stands for "Fornication Under Consent of the King", a phrase supposedly posted on the doors of those persons permitted to reproduce at a time of medieval population control or to indicate that a brothel had paid its tax and was licensed to operate. These etymologies can be shown to be false for a number of reasons, not least historical inaccuracy: the "population control" theory neglects the fact that at the time in question, fornication referred only to the sin of sex outside marriage, and would not have been used to refer to acts between married partners. Moreover, the practice of adopting acronyms and the like into everyday language (such as yuppie, nimbyism, scuba, radar and sonar) was not common practice until the 20th century. "Fuck" in fact entered Middle English from another Germanic source, most likely Scandinavian.
  • "G.O.L.F (For golf) This false etymology states that Golf originated as an acronym for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden."[10]
  • "Pom" or "Pommy", 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.).
  • T.I.P. for "tip" (in the sense of a gratuity for a waiter), alleged to stand for "to insure promptness". In fact, it is originally from thieves' cant.


Some words which are commonly thought to be eponyms, but are not:

  • The word crap, after Earl (or Thomas) Crapper. The flush toilet was indeed popularised to a large extent and improved — though not invented — by an Englishman named Thomas Crapper, but the coincidence of his surname is only that — a coincidence. The slang term crap meaning faeces or defecate was in common use long before his time and can be traced back to Old English crappe meaning residue from rendered fat, and can even be traced as far back as Middle Latin to crappa. American-English has preserved the original meaning of residue. British-English speakers should be aware that, to American ears, the use of 'crap' as an exclamation of frustration is mild and inoffensive (on the same level as 'sugar' or 'cripes'). Similarly, when in the UK, American-English speakers should avoid using 'crap' as an exclamation in polite company.
  • The word nasty, after Thomas Nast and his biting, vitriolic cartoons. The word predates Nast by several centuries and may be related to the Dutch word nestig, or "dirty".[11]


  • "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.)
  • Lanzarote. A popular story claims that the conqueror Jean de Bethencourt was so impressed with the peaceful nature of the island's inhabitants that he broke his lance in half. The name supposedly derives from lanza rota (broken lance). This story is unlikely, the island is probably named after the 13th century trader Lancelotto Malocello.
  • "Hiccough", a spelling still occasionally 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.[12]
  • "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)
  • "sincere" is often believed to come from sine cera, without wax. In fact it is almost certainly from the Latin roots sim-/sin- (as in "simplicity", "single") and cre- (as in cresco, grow), with the implication "of a single growth"
  • "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, a quince, and then expanded from quince jam to orange mermalada (Spanish), all kinds of jam (in German) and to citrus or ginger jam (in English).
  • "sirloin": an equally apocryphal story features an English king (usually identified as Charles II) conferring knighthood on a beef roast, saying "Rise, Sir Loin!" Alas, the name merely means the top of the loin (from French sur, on or above).
  • "average": a term used for damage sustained at sea (the arithmetical meaning came later). Popularly believed to be derived from a tax on goods (Law French "avers", goods, plus the -age ending). In fact it is derived, via French avarie, from Arabic awar, meaning marine damage.
  • "adamant": often believed to come from Latin adamare, meaning to love to excess. In fact derived from Greek αδαμας, 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 était bon pour Nicole" ("It's good enough for Nicole"), or "C'est une pomme pour Nicole" ("it's an apple for Nicole"), or "pain pour Nicole" (bread for Nicole). Some dictionaries claim a derivation from the German vernacular Pumpen (fart) and "Nick" (demon or devil) though others disagree.[13]
  • "Sword" did not come from "God's word" ('sword) as a minced oath (in the same way that 'sblood is "God's blood" or strewth (originally 'struth, from "Gawd strewth") is "God's truth"). 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.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • ” Thomas Pyles and John Algeo (1993).The Origins and Development of the English Language,” 4th ed.,
  • Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (by David Wilton, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN 0195172841)
  • Anatoly Liberman (2005). Word Origins ... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195161472.
  • Adrian Room (1986). Dictionary of True Etymologies. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7102-0340-3.
  • David Wilton (2004). Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517284-1.


External links[edit]

Category:Urban legends Category:Etymology Category:Language comparison Category:Etymology Category:Urban legends

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