List of Folk Etymologies in English, Folk Etymologies List

List of Folk Etymologies in English, Folk Etymologies List

One of the funniest and most fascinating aspects of etymology (word history) is folk etymology. Folk etymology isn’t real etymology, which is determined by rules of language change over time; it does not reflect natural historical changes in words. Rather, it represents “erroneous” changes made by people who mishear words, usually foreign words, and try to make these words more “English”.

Folk etymologies are based on misperceptions of foreign words as native words. The underlying principle of folk etymology is that speakers of a language expect all the words—and every part of a word—in their language to be legitimate English words or affixes (suffix or prefix).

If a word is pronounced so that native speakers cannot detect its English pieces, speakers shift the pronunciation of the word to the nearest English word, whether the result makes semantic sense of not. For example, catercornered contains a strange chunk of sound before the recognizable cornered. Speakers’ reaction was to change cater to the regular English word catty, which is similar in pronunciation. In fact, this word is not all that common, so many speakers have changed it again to kitty-cornered—well, kitties are also cuter than cats.

The meaning of the modified word is less significant in folk etymologies. If a phonetically similar word with a similar meaning can be found, well and good. However, even if the meaning does not make sense in the context of the compound, as in kitty-cornered, so long as all its parts sound like real English words, the folk etymological change will survive.

Below we begin our collection of English folk etymologies. Keep an eye on it, for we will be expanding it as time goes by. Asterisks mark new entries.

aphrodisia The goddess of love for the ancient Phoenicians was Astarte, a goddess shared by the Hebrews as a consort of Baal, and probably inherited from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. The Greeks apparently borrowed this goddess even though the Greek poet Hesiod claimed that she was born of the foam of the sea, in Greek, the word for “foam” is aphros. Apparently this word influenced the pronunciation of the goddess’s name, converting it to Aphrodite by folk etymology. Aphrodisia “passionate love” was derived from Aphrodite.
amuck This word was originally Malay amok “frenzied, out of control” but was adjusted to reflect the English word muck, making it resemble adverb-adjectives like aboard, aglow, and adrift. Well, when we run amok, we do tend to muck things up, don’t we?
artichoke This word came from Arabic al harshuf which Spanish borrowed as alcarchofa. Italian then changed the L to an R making it articiocco. This was still too exotic for English when its turn came to borrow this word. While art–even Arty–is a good English word, ciocco was not, so we converted it to choke. The result was that people thought for a long time the vegetable was so named because it could choke you in its “(he)art” if you weren’t careful eating it. Really!
avocado Spanish tried to borrow the Nahuatl word for this fruit, ahuacatl “tree testicle”, but found it difficult to pronounce. The Nahuatl word was first changed to aguacate, a word seemingly containing agua “water”, but later this word was replaced by avocado “lawyer” (abogado today), a word sharing an origin with English advocate.
belfry This word was originally Old French berfroi “movable siege tower”, borrowed from Middle High German bercfrit, based on the root of bergen “to protect” + frid “peace, safety.” These towers later became stationary watchtowers equipped with alarm bells. Later they were attached to churches and the bells assigned other uses.
the birds and the bees Beast originally meant simply “animal”, but when its meaning changed to its current one, the shift threw the phrase “the birds and the beasts” off course. Speakers eliminated beasts for a similarly sounding word even though it made even less sense.
blunderbuss Dutch donderbus “thunder-box” came from donder “thunder” + bus “can, box”, a word borrowed from Latin buxis “box”. Then English took it over and we blundered onto the pronunciation blunderbuss, even though neither blunder nor buss (to kiss) are related to firearms (well, depending on whom you buss). Semantic incongruities like these do not bother folk etymology.
bridegroom This word is a variation of Middle English bridegome. Bridegome came from Old English brydguma made up of bryd “bride” + guma “man”. Old English guma shares its origin with Latin homo “man, person” but it later disappeared. Under the influence of groom, which originally referred to a stable boy or manservant, guma simply shifted to groom, giving us bridegroom.
Canary Islands Canary in the name of this archipelago was originally Latin Canariae Insulae “Islands of Dogs” and English simply adapted to words already in its lexicon in borrowing it. (See also island below.)
caterpillar Caterpillar started out as Old French chatepelose “hairy cat”, their take on the woolly bear. Pelose “hairy” was first replaced by Middle English piller “pillager”, since caterpillars were thought to ‘pillage’ trees and bushes. The spelling was changed later to pillar when piller became obsolete. Chat “cat” wandered over to cater along the way, no doubt influenced by the word cater found in words like catercornered and caterwaul.
catsup Neither “cat sup” nor “cats up” make sense in relation to ketchup but catsup has now become a legitimate spelling of the word indicating the popular American tomato sauce. English borrowed this word from Dutch ketjap. Dutch got it from Malay kechap “fish sauce”.
catty-cornered This word was originally catercornered. Cater is an English adjustment of French quatre “four” and began its life referring to the dots on the “four” side of a die (plural dice). It was also used in catercap, a four-cornered hat usually worn with corners to the front and back. When cater became obsolete, speakers looked for a legitimate English word to accompany cornered; catty and, in some regions, kitty (as in kitty-cornered) were their choice.
chaise lounge This phrase came from French chaise longue “long chair”. Now the first word in this phrase is pronounced exactly like chase in English, so it remained unchanged. But the pronunciation of longue was unclear to English speakers, so they replaced it by another English word with no semantic relation to the original.
checkmate This word started out as Arabic shah mat “the king (shah) is dead”. English borrowed the phrase from Old French escheque mat, little changed from the Arabic except for the initial E added by French pronunciation rules. English removed that but, again, was left with two words that were not English. Solution: find similar words that are English. Check and mate were the lucky winners.
cockamamie In the middle of the 19th Century decals became a mania in Victorian Britain, so much so that the Brits borrowed a French word, décalcomanie “mania for tracings” to describe it. The French word is made up of the prefix de- “from, off” + calquer “to copy, trace”, plus the French word for “mania”, manie. So what has this cockamamie story to do with the word under discussion? Cockamamie is, in fact, nothing but the result of folk etymology working over décalcomanie. (By the way, decal is a clipping or shortening of the same French word.)
cockroach This word was borrowed directly from Spanish cucaracha but it soon became cockaroach with a spare A in the middle in English. The A was doomed from the start and, when it disappeared, we were left with a compound made up of two legitimate English words. Later, we began dropping the first of these so that most of us call these pest simply roaches today.
cocktail According to one of several tales speculating on the origin of this word, the Haitian apothecary Antoine Peychaud (famous for his Peychaud bitters) served a mixed brandy drink at parties he held at his New Orleans apothecary shop in a French eggcup called a coquetier, pronounced, roughly, [cocktyay]. Such a word would be a prime candidate for a folk etymological transformation into a word with two recognizable if irrlevant words, cocktail.
crawfish Old English borrowed the word crevise, pronounced [cray-vis] at the time, from Old French. (In Modern French it is ecrevisse.) The French word sounded strange, unrecognizable to native speakers of English, so crevise soon became crayfish. Now, fish is a legitimate English word but what about cray (this was before Cray supercomputers, remember). People in Louisiana noticed that, unlike regular fish, crayfish crawl, so they went a step further to create craw(l)fish.
Cuernovaca The name of this Mexican town comes from Nahuatl Cuauhnahuac “place near trees”, another hard word for Spanish settlers to pronounce (see also avocado). Folk etymology stepped in and created Cuernovaca from cuerno “horn” + vaca “cow”, a word Spanish speakers are much more comfortable pronouncing.
demijohn A demijohn is a bottle with a narrow neck and bulging body enclosed in a wicker jacket (not half a John). The name originated as French Dame Jeanne “Dame Jane” and remains in Spanish as the Spanish version of the same phrase dama-juana. The problem is that no one knows why a bottle has the name of an unknown lady, so folk etymology converted it to a more English-like word, demijohn.
dormouse This word is a make-over of French dormeuse “sleeping, sleepy” from dormir “to sleep”. The name originally referred to this animals tendency to hibernate in winter. Again, dor sounds like a legitimate word even though it is spelled differently, but what about the meuse? In this case, looks are not deceiving: meuse is one letter away from mouse.
ducking stool This punishment for scolds, witches, and other disorderly women was originally a cucking stool, used originally to punish women who cuckholded their husbands. When the verb cuck began drifting into oblivion, cucking had to be replaced by a current English word and, given the use of this device, ducking was the obvious choice.
female Middle English borrowed this word as femelle from Old French. French inherited it from Latin femella “small or dear woman”, a diminutive of femina “woman”. Now, since femelle often occurred in contrast to male, guess what happened over the course of the years.
gig A frog gig was originally known as a fishgig, which is the result of folk etymology operating over Spanish fisga “harpoon”. It arrived in English as fisgig in the middle of the 16th century. In this case only the first word was adapted, from fis to fish. This word ultimately dropped off, making the second part of this word a word unto itself.
gunsel This word began its life as a Yiddish word gendzl “gosling”, diminutive of gandz “goose” and originally referred to a young tramp or hobo, someone new to the hobo life. In the late 1940s, however, it slipped to its current meaning, “a thug with a gun”, by analogy with gun.
hamburger Originally hamburg-er “meat patty from Hamburg” but speaker recognition of “ham”, which is also a meat, overcame any doubts raised by the fact that hamburgers are made of beef. As a result, hamburg-er was reanalyzed as ham-burger, making ham a replaceable item. Cheeseburger was the first, followed by fishburger, baconburger. At this point burger became a word unto itself and today, we find it used alone as a standard word: Burger King, burger roll, burger stand.
hangnail This word was easy to folk-etymologize. It was angnail in Middle English, made up of ang “painful” + nail. The word ang can also be seen in angry and anxiety (pronounced [ang-zai-uh-tee]). By Middle English, however, ang was no longer used so we simply added an H to the beginning of this word so that it now comprises two perfectly current English words. Hence the Cockney pronunciation of this word, ‘angnail, simply returns to the original.
hooray This word started out as huzzah, which changed mysteriously into hurrah, then changed by folk etymology to hooray, pronounced the same as who ray, both good, easily recognizable English words. In the US today, this word is being reduced to simply ray, as in “Ray, Bucknell!”
Hummer This name for a large sports utility vehicle originated in the US Army where it bore that so, so romantic name HMMWV for “High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle”. The abbreviation was pronounced Humvee to make the vehicle discussable. When General Motors bought the rights to commercialize it, they changed the name to the much more English Hummer, an intentional folk etymology but folk etymology none the less.
island In Old English this word was iegland, made up of ieg “water”, a derivational relative of Latin aqua “water”. However, iegland was a synonym of isle so, when ieg lost its footing in the language, speakers replaced that word with isle and away we went.
Jerusalem artichoke A Jerusalem artichoke is actually the tuber of a sunflower, which the Italians call a girasole. English originally borrowed and used the Italian word. As usual, however, the Italian word worried some speakers, so they replaced it with a more familiar word, Jerusalem. This meant that it now had to be accompanied by another word. For unknown reasons, artichoke was selected.
kickshaw A kickshaw is a gewgaw, doodad, or something—which is just what quelque chose means in French, “something”. English speakers who couldn’t quite pronounce the French word quickly converted it into something more compatible with the English tongue.
kissin’ kin This odd construction was converted from the idiomatic phrase “kith and kin” where kith is an outdated word for “friends, acquaintances”.
kitty-corner See catty-cornered
love In tennis, love means “zero”. Tennis scores are love, 15, 30, 40, game, rather than 0-1-2-3-4, win. This word is an English rendition of French l’œuf “the egg” in a sense akin to the English phrase goose egg.
mandrake English borrowed this word from Latin mandragoras, a word Latin nicked from Greek. For a century or two, English speakers could not decide whether to change the Latin word to mandragon or mandrake, but the mid-seventeenth century our ancestors settled on mandrake. The first syllable, man, was not tampered with since it is a good English word and the forked root of this plant was thought to resemble a man. It was also attributed magic powers despite the fact that it is poison and was said to emit a scream when pulled from the ground.
mangrove The mangrove tree with its tangle of roots above the water it grows in was originally called the mangle tree in English, a word borrowed from Spanish. The Spaniards apparently picked mangle up from an obsolete Malay word, manggi-manggi “mangrove”, though when and how remain unclear. What is clear is that when the word reached Jamaica, it became mangrow. This still sounded a little odd to English speakers so, since these trees grow in groves and resemble a man as much as a mandrake root does, the word slowly migraged to mangrove.
marchpane When English borrowed marzipan, referring to the almond paste candy, it was a pain to spell. Folk etymologists quickly fixed that problem. Marzipan was originally German. English may have taken this word from the Italian variant, marzapane; we aren’t sure.
mayhem When English borrowed Old French mahaigne “injury”, the word developed in two directions. In one instance it dropped the inconvenient H in the middle and became maim. The other direction retained the H but the word then had to be changed into two recognizable English words and may and hem were chosen. The new “compound” survived despite sounding more like a seamstress’s decision than an act of destruction.
mistletoe This word started out at mistiltan in Old English, made up of mistel “mistletoe” + tan “twig”. However, when tan vanished from the language, something had to be done about its occurrence in compounds like mistletan. Well, don’t those waxy white berries look like a baby’s toes?
mush This is an noun referring to a journey over the snow, especially by dogsled. It is also an interjection, a command to the dogs pulling the sled to take off. It is a remodeling of French Marche! “Go! Walk!” under the influence of the word for porridge, mush, itself a variant of mash.
mushroom We should be talking about a room where all the mush is kept when we use this word—but we aren’t. Again, this was a word borrowed from Old French, mousseron, that puzzled speakers of Middle English. No one could find words that were both similar in sound and meaning, so we had to settle on only vaguely similar sounds and totally unrelated meanings.
muskrat Also mushrat. This word was borrowed from an Algonquian language, probably Massachusett musquash. It had to go somewhere and musk + rat was the best we could do.
noisome This word was originally noy “annoyance” + some, but as noy went out of fashion, noysome was refashioned into noisome, today more and more frequently misspelled noisesome. It means “obnoxious, annoying”.
outrage This word was originally French outrage “unconventionality”, made up of outré “beyond, outside” + -age, a noun suffix. Since it took on the meaning of rage, English speakers converted it into out-rage
penthouse Would you like to be pent (= penned) up in a penthouse? Well, penthouses, as well you know, are not places in which we pen ourselves. French speakers in England (Anglo-Normans) back in the 14th century used the word apentiz to refer to a lean-to built against a house. This word apparently is an odd derivation of appendre “to append”, related to appendix. The aphetic A was lost and the remaining pentiz was too strange for Englishmen, so the odd ending was replaced by house. The meaning changed subsequently.
pettifogger This word began with the phrase “petty Fugger”, based on the family name, Fugger, financial giants of Augsburg, Germany in the 15th-16th centuries. A “petty Fugger” was originally a small businessman who tried to live by the deceptive maneuvers and manipulations of the great financiers. The phrase became a word at which point Fugger was replaced by fogger via folk etymology. The implications of fog in the new word paved the way for this word migrating to lawyers who obfuscated issues and from there to the general public.
piggyback This word began as pick pack sometimes before 1564. This original concept was picking up a pack of something and putting where people carry loads—on their backs. Pick pack became pick-a-pack, then pick-a-back by association. When the A shifted to I, the word became pickiback, which sounded like picky back. This made no sense whatever, so in the 1930s we began trying piggyback since, when we ride our children on our backs, we often crawl on hands and knees, roughly imitating pigs.
pilgrim Pilgrim is a folk etymological rendering of Old French peligrin, since pil(l) and grim are true English words. Old French inherited the word from Latin peregrinus “foreign, strange”. This word was derived from pereger “abroad, away”, originally a compound comprising per “through, beyond” + ager “land, field”.
pollywog In the 13th century poll meant “head”, so that poll tax began as a “head tax”. Pollywog began as a polwigle, literally, “a head-wiggle” but was soon reduced to poliwig. This word lost its sense when the meaning of poll changed. The folk etymologists quickly stepped in and smoothed off poli to the nickname of a parrot, polly, and a racial slur, wog. Well, they’re both words, at least. (See also tadpole.)
popinjay This word is an English remake of Greek papagas “parrot”, which it borrowed from Arabic babbaga’ “parrot”. A jay is a colorful bird itself and popin (or poppin) is close to popping, another good English word. Originally popinjay referred to images of parrots woven into tapestries. Later it evolved to refer to people who dress gaudily or talk mindlessly like parrots. These same senses still loom over popinjay.
posthumous English isn’t the only language where folk etymology operates. This word started out in Latin as postumus “last” but, since the meaning suggested humare “to bury”, speakers of Late Latin reconfigured this word to post “after” + humus “earth”, a noun closely related to humare. Remember, the English variant is post-humous; don’t pronounce the TH as the digraph in the.
pumpkin This word started its career as pumpion, borrowed from French pompon. The only recognizable part of this word was pump but you shouldn’t add the suffix -ion to that word, so speakers replaced it with a suffix you could, the diminutive suffix -kin, as in lambkin, munchkin, and mannikin. We lost this suffix after Old English; otherwise, this word would mean “a small pump”.
quahog Wouldn’t you find it difficult to confuse a clam with a hog? Well, this word is currently halfway through folk etymology and its has already become a hog. The original Narragansett word for clam was poquauhock, which Englishmen copied as quahaug, a spelling which is still acceptable. Folk etymology changed the haug in this word to the similar English word hog. We still haven’t decided what to do with the qua but its likelihood of survival is very low.
raft In the sense of “many”, as in “a raft of birds in the elm tree,” was raff when it left Scotland for North America. Non-Scots, however, couldn’t figure out this word, so they changed it to one they recognized.
rakehell We are not sure of the origin of this word. Middle English had a phrase “to rake hell” for something, the result of which was usually finding something really bad. But the meaning best fits a northern English adjective rackle “crude, reckless”. If this was the origin, we would need folk etymology to explain how it became rakehell.
ramshackle Tammany Hall suffered from less corruption than this word over its history. It is a back-formation of ramshackled, a corruption of ranshackled, itself a corruption of ransackled, the past participle of ransackle “to ransack”. Ransackle was the frequentative (indicating repeated activity) variant of Middle English ransaken “to pillage”, which went on to become ransack. This verb was ultimately borrowed from Old Norse rannsaka “house search” comprising rann “house” + saka “to search, seek.”
saltcellar You’ve probably wondered how we can use a salt cellar without leaving the table. The answer again is folk etymology. English borrowed the French word salier “salt cellar” originally as saler. To make it clearer, we reduplicated the salt in the phrase salt saler. Still, saler wasn’t an English word so we sent for the nearest sound and found, oddly enough, cellar. All fixed!
sandblind Did you ever wonder what happened to the root of Latin semi “half” in the Germanic languages? Well, it survived for a while as sam, seen in the Old English word, samblind “half blind”. In those days samlaered was “half-taught” and samstorfen was “half dead”. However, sam itself drifted away from the language, leaving us with the problem of finding a substitute. What else? Sand!
serviceberry Not many of us eat serviceberries but those of us who do know that they are the berries of the shadbush tree. But shadbushberry? Well, that was a mouthful even with no serviceberries in it, so the word had to be reshaped. What word even approaches shadbush? Now you know.
shamefaced There was a time when fast meant “solid, unmovable”, a sense we still find in fasten, colorfast, and similar words. The original word was shamefast with the sense of “stuck with shame”. The meaning didn’t change much with the reanalysis of this word.
seersucker This word came into from Hindi sirsakar, which had been borrowed from the Persian compound shiroshakar, meaning literally “milk-and-sugar”. In India the word was used figuratively for a striped linen garment. The English word was first recorded in 1722 as sea sucker, probably because the cloth was imported from India. Don’t you feel much more comfortable knowing that both seer and sucker are good, honest English words when you use seersucker? Sucker?
sparrow grass Some English speakers find the word asparagus alien and have converted it into this phrase that almost makes sense.
spitting image In the early 19th century to say that someone was the very spit of someone else meant that he was almost an identical twin of that person. From that sense, the phrase “spit and image” of someone evolved. However, by the end of the 19th century, spit was no longer used in this sense and, since the and reduced to ‘n’ in much spoken English, the phrase spit ‘n’ image was the spit and image of spittin’ image, the common reduction of spitting image.
summersault Here is a word still undergoing the folk etymological process. The original was Old French sombresault. We first fixed that odd segment sombre, simplifying it to somersault, a form most of us can still live with. However, somer is not an English word and it is so close to summer that many cannot resist the temptation. That leaves sault, the French variant of Latin saltus “jumped”. Not only will you hear summerset frequently down South, even it you live elsewhere, you will probably hear your children pronouncing the word this way. Careful talking to your kids! You can pick up odd things in your speech.
tadpole As you recall from our discussion of pollywog, poll originally meant “head” in English. Well, it was sometimes spelled pole—a poleax was originally a “head axe”. (Guess how it was used.) Back when tadde meant “toad”, a taddepol meant literally “a toad head”. As tadde became toad, folk etymology reassociated tadde with tad “small amount”, resulting in tadpole.
turmeric Turmeric, pronounced [tur-mur-ik], the name of an anti-inflammatory curry powder, began its life as Latin terra merita “worthy earth”. In Old French it became terre-merite “saffron” and was borrowed as Old English tarmaret. First, the ending was replaced by the recognizable suffix -ic. In the US this word is currently being converted further into tumeric, without the R, probably by analogy with tumor, which is pronounced the same.
Welsh rarebit This is an odd one. Welsh rabbit is a dish of melted cheese and milk poured over bread or crackers. The name probably comes from the fact that Welsh was associated with deceit in the British Isles for a long time (as to welsh on someone). That connection was lost, however, and the fact that Welsh rabbit included no rabbit, let to folk etymologizing this word as a rare bit.
white rhinoceros Wouldn’t you expect a white rhinoceros to be an albino? Well, it isn’t because white was originally Afrikaans weit “wide”. (Afrikaans is a dialect of Dutch spoken in South Africa.) White and black rhinoceroses are distinguished by their upper lips: black rhinoceroses have a pointed upper lip while the white rhinoceros has a wide, straight upper lip.
wiseacre English borrowed the Middle Dutch word wijssegger “soothsayer” in the 16th century. The Dutch word means literally “knowledge seer” for wijs is a cognate of English wise. In fact, as the English word developed into wise, the Dutch word wijs changed with it, leaving the odd word segger. Acre was apparently was the English word closest in sound speakers in those days could find.
witch hazel In Old English the alternative name for the hornbeam plant (genus Hamamelis) was wych hazel. Wych was an old word meaning “bendable, pliable”; a variant of it appears in wicker. When wych fell into disuse, it was replaced in this common plant name by witch. The new noun, witch, was reinforced by the fact that dousers, who search for underground water holding a Y-shaped branch of witch hazel in their hands, claim such branches bend magically downward toward water when passing over it.
woodchuck This animal name also started out as an Indian word, probably Cree otchok. Again, English words resembling the two syllables in this word replaced the two syllables of the Cree word even though they make no sense together. But that is all the better for the tongue-twister: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”


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One Response to List of Folk Etymologies in English, Folk Etymologies List

  1. Elisabeth says:

    Is “juris doctorate” a folk etymology?

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