Eggcorn Forum

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Chris -- 2015-05-30

#1 2007-06-29 09:58:57

Registered: 2006-08-08
Posts: 1455

Folk etymology

Patschwieterman mentioned this link to folk etymology in a recent post…

Pat adds:

Over all, that Wikipedia article is really informative and full of intriguing details. People who hang out at the Eggcorns Forum would probably find lots of it interesting.

I agree. We really haven’t had a thread dedicated to folk etymology before, but it’s probably long overdue.

I must admit, I’ve had a hard time distinguishing eggcorns from folk etymology. It sounds like the latter are reshapings whereby people have a false assumption of the origin of a word. I’m not sure if this is always the case, but folk etymology reshapings occur with full knowledge of the standard usage. The utterer concludes that the standard usage is either wrong or lacking in function, and offers the reshaping based on a different etymology—which just happens to be fictitious. By contrast, an eggcorn utterer is completely unaware that his reshaping (of a standard usage) has occurred.

An example of a folk etymology in the Wikipedia article is the intentional reshaping of “pentice” to “penthouse” in which the latter term has a strengthened imagery. In other cases, the folk etymology utterer may conclude that he has “restored” a term to a more correct form—but with no true historic basis.

Last edited by jorkel (2007-06-29 10:15:50)



#2 2007-07-06 19:51:52

Day Vid
From: Detroit
Registered: 2007-07-06
Posts: 9

Re: Folk etymology

An eggcorn utterer may be unaware of what he has done, but if he is challenged on it, he is highly likely to come up with a folk etymology to defend his usage on the spur of the moment.

Here’s a non-eggcorn example: someone once used the phrase “a hop, skip, and a jump” to me to mean someplace that is a long way away. When I questioned whether the expression really meant a far off locale, or somewhere nearby, he explained that it was far away because you needed three different modes of transportation just to get there—a hop, skip, and a jump!

I believe you will find that folk etymologies follow eggcorns like day follows night, and will find it difficult at best to draw any clear line between them. I think the processes that create them are closely related.

Called a grove for lack of light.
Day Vid

(While writing this, I had to resist strong urges to write “spurn of the moment” and “day follows knight”—eggcorns tickle the wordplay centers of my brain.)



#3 2007-07-06 21:01:47

From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: Folk etymology

I think Jorkel is right in arguing that a transformation like that involved in pentice>>penthouse betrays more than a bit of antiquarian self-consciousness on someone’s part. Somebody had to have decided that “pentice” must be a reduced form of “penthouse,” and then they must have set about using the reshaping – the change is just too big to have come about spontaneously.

But from what I can tell, linguists and lexicographers use “folk etymology” in a way that includes changes that are made both consciously and unconsciously. The ones that get talked about most are the former – they’re striking, eye-catching and undeniable, and they make good copy. However, there are other reshapings that are labelled “folk etymologies” that seem inadvertent – just like our eggcorns. “Belfry” from “berfry” seems to be an example (though its history is admittedly complex) – the fact that bells appear in belfries, combined with r/l alternation, made that change nearly inevitable. And the “hold” of a ship – from “hole” – also seems like it was a probably an unconscious change.

We here on the forum are very interested in conscious vs. unconscious reshapings, but etymologists seem to be less concerned with the idea – partially, I suspect, because it’s impossible to tell the difference in many cases.

Two linguists associated with the Database – Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky – seem to feel that rarity vs. pervasiveness provides the best criterion for distinguishing an eggcorn from a folk etymology. Here’s Liberman’s brief discussion of the difference in the Language Log post that launched the eggcorn craze:

It’s not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community. … 00018.html

In comments posted about a week and a half later, Zwicky picks up on Liberman’s claim, noting that “folk etymology” is as close as existing terminology could get:

Certainly, if any existing label fits for egg corn, “folk etymology” is it. Fact is, we’re pretty short of labels for kinds of reshapings of expressions. … 00074.html

After a paragraph in which he talked about the nature of folk etymology, Zwicky comes to this conclusion:

Maybe we should talk about nonce folk etymologies vs. successful folk etymologies, with lots of stuff in between, but the original impulse is the same in all of these cases: to find meaningful parts in otherwise unparsable expressions. … 00074.html

So for both Liberman and Zwicky, the difference between “eggcorn” and “folk etymology” depends on whether the reshaping has spread and become part of the language at large. In this view, every “folk etymology” was once an eggcorn. (“Mighty folk etymologies from tiny eggcorns grow”?)

Last edited by patschwieterman (2007-07-06 21:02:57)



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