Thursday, September 18, 2014

Etymology, Folk Etymology & Blind Guesses

Some years ago, I went on one of those tourist-trap boats on the Thames. The guide kept up the usual cheery chatter, and one of the pieces of "information" he gave us was that the word wharf is actually an acronym, standing for Ware House At River Front. I was immediately dubious about that, and sure enough, when I checked, I found that it actually comes from the Anglo-Saxon word hwearf, meaning much the same as the modern word.

It's possible that the acronym began as a mnemonic (it's not an easy word to remember how to spell) but somewhere along the line that was forgotten and it got taken as the word's origin. That's unlikely anyway, since using acronyms as words is a relatively modern phenomenon.

Folk etymology is everywhere, though, and people will insist on telling you completely invented origins for words which they believe implicitly. Another often claimed to be an acronym is news, for North East West South (presumably because the more common order would result in the word nsew). In fact, it's more prosaic than that. The word quite literally means "new things", as when we ask someone "What's new?"

It's very easy, too, to make assumptions about words that seem similar, especially when the meanings are compatible too, but that doesn't always prove a connection. The number of possible sound-combinations isn't infinite, and some will appear in languages all over the world. The problem is, they've often come to that point by very different routes.

A while ago, someone on an online forum claimed that the word devil is (not might be, but is) related to the Sanskrit word devi, meaning a lesser god. On the face of it, that's entirely possible: it wouldn't be the only time the gods of one religion have been turned into the devils of another.

Except that it isn't true. A brief look at the history of devil shows that it comes from the Old English deofol, and that derives from the Latin diabolus and the Greek diabolos, from which we get diabolic (trust me: b and f really are closely related sounds). The original word means an accuser or slanderer, and clearly has no connection with the Sanskrit word.

This kind of thing even happens within the same language. It can produce good puns: for instance, if we think of rock music as something to do with stones (as Dylan said, everybody — especially rock musicians — must get stoned). However, where rock as in stone comes from French roche and Latin rocca, rock meaning sway (which is how the music got its name) is a Germanic word, roccian in Old English. No connection whatsoever.

On the other hand, the opposite can sometimes happen, and the most bizarre links can exist between apparently unconnected versions of the same letter-jumble. One of my favourites is check. This has numerous different meanings: to make sure something's OK, to stop something's progress, a pattern of squares or (spelt cheque here in Britain) a bank's promissory note, as well as several others.

Which makes it more surprising that they all derive from exactly the same source: the Persian word for king, usually rendered as shah. It entered the English language via its use in chess — when you call out check, you're essentially saying "look to your king", while checkmate means "the king is dead". All the other meanings are ultimately references to or metaphors for some aspect of chess or of putting the king in check.

This happened because words change their meanings through the centuries, sometimes causing confusion. We all know, and usually accept without thought, the saying "the exception that proves the rule", without considering that it's absurd. After all, an exception to a rule challenges the rule, rather than confirms it.

But that's precisely what the saying really means. The word prove used to mean test (it's still found in that sense in military proving grounds) and the expression means that an exception tests whether a rule is still valid — not a confirmation, but still a valuable scientific process.

For example, we have a rule that says "An object will fall to the ground when it's suspended in mid-air." "Ah," someone objects, "but when I threw a stone, it went up, not down." You then explain at length the precise difference between suspending and throwing, possibly demonstrating both with the objector. The rule is neither tested nor affected.

"Ah," says someone else, "but I suspended (not threw) a balloon in the air, and that floated up."

This is a much more valid objection, and we actually have to rephrase the rule to say "An object that's heavier than air will fall to the ground when it's suspended in mid-air." The original rule has been proved in the old sense, but definitely not proved in the new sense.

Ultimately, of course, it's not a big deal if someone misunderstands the origin of a word. The problem is the internet. The flip-side of having all the information we might need at our fingertips is that it's not all true, and once something's been stated as fact online, it can be incredibly difficult to convince people that they shouldn't believe it.

There's a very simple answer to this: get a good dictionary, whether it's on your bookshelf or on your computer. And I mean a GOOD dictionary, not Something like the Oxford or Collins Dictionaries (or I imagine Merriam Webster if you're in America) will give the source of each word, as far as it's known, at the end of the entry. Five minutes with the Concise Oxford Dictionary would have told you everything I've put in this article, and a great deal more.

You too can be an etymologist, instead of a folk etymologist.


  1. Posh is another one of those words that is sometimes falsely claimed to be derived from an acronym. While it's a fairly recent word, there's no evidence to support the "port outwards, starboard home" origin that's so often tossed out. There are a couple of other words that are older and much less, um, posh that also are the subject of this kind of false claim "ship high in transit," and "for uncommon carnal knowledge."

    One word I've wondered about is "bark," which I've heard is derived from an OE onomatopoeia for the sound a dog makes, but of course, there's also the word tree "bark," which would be completely unrelated in this case. I've also heard that the dog sound word is related to the old idiom "barking up the wrong tree."

    One of those two explanations would be wrong, obviously.

    1. Yes, I forgot about posh. I hadn't heard the other acronyms, but they sound like ideas produced with someone with too much time on their hands.

      Bark is another one that's two unrelated words (three actually - there's also bark = ship, though that's also spelt barque). The noise the dog makes is Old English, the tree-skin is Norse - the dictionary suggests it could be related to birch. Barking up the wrong tree - I suppose that's a dog that's supposed to have tracked down its quarry but gets it wrong. The phrase is listed under the dog's bark, not the tree's bark.

  2. Yep, that's my take on bark also (from checking the OED). I like that birch and bark are derived from the same word, since that makes the concept of birch bark redundant.

    Though so is the river Avon, and one of my favorite landmarks in Boulder, CO, Table Mesa.

    As for the two alleged acronym origins for a couple of Old English-derived words, I don't know where those myths originated, but I heard them when I was a kid (pre internet days). I remember coming home from school and sharing my schoolyard knowledge with my dad, and he promptly told me I was fuller of that particular word than a Christmas goose and handed me a dictionary.