False Etymologies
February 5, 2009 7:56 AM   Subscribe

A false etymology is "an assumed or postulated etymology that current consensus among scholars of historical linguistics holds to be incorrect." The internet has provided a platform for the rapid spread of some false etymologies - Snopes has posts debunking Picnic / Handicap / Buck / Crowbar. On the other hand, a folk etymology can mean "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." Other interesting anomalies of etymology: backronyms and eggcorns.
posted by billysumday (27 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
A good rule of thumb is: if it sounds correct, for all intensive porpoises it probably isn't.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:00 AM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've never heard of that last one. I suppose an eggcorn is one word, and more than one word is a mondegreen? Or is it a subset of mondegreen, maybe?

Eggcorn reminds me of a good Strine term to use if I want to get myself into an oldskool 1970s Australian accent. IMHO, Strine is dying out with the advent of global media etc, but it can still be found in the country and the working class.

Egg Nishner = Air Conditioner.

"Turn on the egg nishner will ya, love, it's getting hot in here." It can turn a newly arrived Pom into an Aussie in a flash!

*Strine = Aussie accent... "Strine" is Strine for "Australian"
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:16 AM on February 5, 2009


I swear I think MetaFilter is following me to bars cause I was just talking about this last night.

Also, we talked about how awesome it is that escalate is a back-formation of escalator, so it's actually a modern word! This came up cause the historical adviser for my book mentioned that "malfunction" and "escalate" are 20th century words and couldn't occur in a 19th century manuscript. Neat!


(Psst, Billy, are you the angry old guy who always sits alone at the end of the bar? You can tell me!)
posted by The Whelk at 8:17 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fuck you, Whelk!
posted by billysumday at 8:19 AM on February 5, 2009


A good rule of thumb is: if it sounds correct, for all intensive porpoises it probably isn't.

I reckon some backronyms are amazing and historical and really paint a picture. eg: Pom = slang for English person, from the convict days when they wore PoME [Prisoner of Mother England] on their convict clothes.

Then I had my innocence shattered here by languagehat who said it was a load of bollocks, and nearly EVERY backronym is a load of bollocks. :(
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:22 AM on February 5, 2009


I love me some completely made-up etymologies. They're like little folk tales. Fiasco has some nice stories around it. It's literally "to make a bottle" so...

"Klein suggests Venetian glass-crafters tossed aside imperfect pieces to be made later into common flasks. But according to an Italian dictionary, fare il fiasco used to mean "to play a game so that the one that loses will pay the fiasco," in other words, he will buy the next bottle (of wine). That plausibly connects the word with the notion of "a costly mistake."
posted by The Whelk at 8:27 AM on February 5, 2009


Fun test, check the various words to see how many of them have various -ist folk connotations. I always liked being told that "Oriental" means alien, to which I would say, "My Latin teacher would be very amused to hear that."
posted by adipocere at 8:32 AM on February 5, 2009


Then I had my innocence shattered here by languagehat who said it was a load of bollocks, and nearly EVERY backronym is a load of bollocks. :(

Shattering innocence since 2002!
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


nearly EVERY backronym is a load of bollocks

Am I missing something here? Isn't a backronym presented as an etymology by definition bollocks? If it's legitimate (e.g., scuba) then it's not a backronym.

That said, pretty much every alleged acronymic origin for words which existed prior to the 20th century is false.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:13 AM on February 5, 2009


I think a mondegreen is a nonsense mishearing, whereas an eggcorn is sensical, but wrong. Like the words, themselves, in fact. "Mondegreen" doesn't mean anything. "Eggcorn" makes a kind of weird sense, in that eggs and seeds are basically the same thing. One could imagine a person hearing "acorn" as "eggcorn" and thinking "oh, so it's like the egg of that tree and they call it 'corn' because of the kernely shape".
posted by DU at 9:34 AM on February 5, 2009


The Eggcorn Database
posted by jtron at 9:53 AM on February 5, 2009


How come all of the examples are apocryphal racism?
posted by klangklangston at 9:54 AM on February 5, 2009


> How come all of the examples are apocryphal racism?

Like how karaoke stems from the period just after the end of the war in Japan, when coloured GI's were not welcomed at many establishments, so those that did posted signs saying "coloured OK", and singing ensued? I heard it on teh interwebs, I swear it's true....
posted by stonepharisee at 9:58 AM on February 5, 2009


My favorite folk etymology has Napoleon sampling a loaf of the dark local rye while decamping in Westphalia. He gives it three chews and an unenthusiastic swallow.

Bof, he says, handing the rest of the bread to Nicole, his horse. Ça, c'est pain pour Nicole!
posted by Iridic at 10:18 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Balderdash & Piffle Wordhunt
posted by Artw at 10:37 AM on February 5, 2009


Ça, c'est pain pour Nicole!

What's kinda disappointing is that the real story is even better! Who wouldn't want to nosh on the Devil's Farts?
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 10:44 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought for awhile that "diamond" = "many worlds" (dia-monde), based on "dialogue" being "many words" (dia-logue). It sounded elegant, I guess, that the sparkling interior of a gem would be described as containing many worlds. But it turns out neither of my guesses were right.

Speaking of which, the Online Etymology Dictionary is great for stuff like this. Easy and free!
posted by Rhaomi at 10:48 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Mother England" strikes my ear with a ding. We're too crown-centric to get all motherland-y like that.
posted by bonaldi at 10:53 AM on February 5, 2009


the historical adviser for my book mentioned that "malfunction" and "escalate" are 20th century words and couldn't occur in a 19th century manuscript.

Your adviser misled you. I realize that's what the Oxford English Dictionary has, but it's child's play these day to verify or debunk such claims oneself. Here's a use of "malfunctions" (plural noun) from 1893. Here's another from 1848. There are many more.
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:58 PM on February 5, 2009


Boys and girls I present the king of folk etymology, Edo Nyland. He's a one-man folk etymology industry.
ENGLISH IS AN INVENTED LANGUAGE.
So are German, Latin, Greek, Russian, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Hungarian, Japanese etc. . . .

Almost every English word existing at the time of Shakespeare was invented by [Benedictine monks] . . . The language used in this enormous effort was Saharan, once the universal language of continental Europe and Britain, but now best represented by the Basque language. . .

It is clear from the following decodings of words that Latin is almost totally formulaically manipulated Basque, which stands to reason because Basque is a far older language (see Old Egyptian). . .

I have empirically developed a standardized set of procedures which, when applied to words of a wide range of languages, consistently produces from each word a phrase descriptively relevant to the present meaning of that word. . . .

The meaning of the name "Latin" is interesting because it tells us that everybody had to memorize the invented words, whether they liked it or not:
Latin, .la-ati-in.
.la - ati - in.
ela - ati - ino
ela - atxiki gogoz - inornahi
word - to memorize - everybody
"Everybody memorize the words."
Und so weiter. . .
posted by Herodios at 2:10 PM on February 5, 2009


Holy shit, Herodios, that's some hi-test crazy right there.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:21 PM on February 5, 2009


Also: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, amirite?
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:24 PM on February 5, 2009


I'm assuming "faggot" fits into this as well ("OMG they call homosexuals that because they used to burn them at the stake with bundles of sticks and another name for a bundle of sticks is a faggot OMG"), but I can't find any backup on snopes. It always seemed like a pretty sketchy origin to me.
posted by queensissy at 4:00 PM on February 5, 2009


Faggot etymology I always heard was bundle to cigarettes (still called "fags" in England), to "effeminate" (because men smoked cigars).
posted by klangklangston at 4:15 PM on February 5, 2009


Boys and girls I present the king of folk etymology, Edo Nyland

That is Grade-A insanity right there. Woah.
posted by GuyZero at 4:21 PM on February 5, 2009


Your adviser misled you. I realize that's what the Oxford English Dictionary has, but it's child's play these day to verify or debunk such claims oneself. Here's a use of "malfunctions" (plural noun) from 1893. Here's another from 1848. There are many more.


I shall report him to the Guild Of Comic Graphic Novel Historical Accuracy Ensurers at once!

(srsly, isn't google books neat?)
posted by The Whelk at 4:15 AM on February 6, 2009


Am I missing something here? Isn't a backronym presented as an etymology by definition bollocks? If it's legitimate (e.g., scuba) then it's not a backronym.

That occurred to me overnight. I just *knew* someone would pick me up on it.

Your last sentence was what I was trying to say.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:31 PM on February 6, 2009


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