folk etymology


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English from the 1880s (Abram Smythe Palmer, 1882), a calque of German Volksetymologie (1820s, in 1821 as Volks-Etymologie in J. A. Schmeller's Die Mundarten Bayerns grammatisch dargestellt).


folk etymology (countable and uncountable, plural folk etymologies)

  1. A misunderstanding of the etymology of a word based on an inexpert analysis; an etymology that incorrectly explains the origin of a word based on the inadequate judgement of a common speaker of the language instead of etymological expertise.
    Synonyms: fake etymology, false etymology, pseudoetymology, paraetymology, paretymology
    Many English folk etymologies involve backronyms.
    • 1926, James A.H. Murray, A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, volume X, page 248, column 1:
      It is not improbable that, in some locality where tram-roads were a novelty, their name may have been associated in folk-etymology or by pre-scientific etymologers with that of the engineer.
    • 1986, Robert Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Berkeley: University of California Press, →ISBN, page 237:
      He even sharked up a false or "folk" etymology in which saunter is made to derive from sainte terre, making the saunterer a crusader.
    • 2006, Shaligram Shukla and Jeff Connor-Linton, “Language change”, in Ralph Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton, editors, An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, →ISBN, page 296:
      Thus hamburger (whose true etymology is 'city of Hamburg' + er 'someone from') has been reanalyzed as ham + burger 'burger made with ham.' [...] Subsequently, on the analogy of this folk etymology, new forms such as cheeseburger, chiliburger, and plain burger have been created.
  2. A modification of a word or its spelling resulting from a misunderstanding of its etymology, as with island, belfry, and hangnail.
    • 1882, Abram Smythe Palmer, Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions, London: George Bell, OCLC 493786531, page 654:
      SURCEASE owes its form and meaning to a remarkable folk-etymology, as has been pointed out by Prof. Skeat:—"It is obvious, from the usual spelling, that this word is popularly supposed to be allied with cease, with which it has no etymological connexion."
    Synonym: popular etymology

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