Thursday, 22 December 2011

A coo-girl, a napron and folk etymology

What is happening, linguistically speaking, when someone writes kugel as coo-girl or construes kudos as a plural? (See “Kugel and kwaito”, 27/10/2011) and “Kudos, pease and thanks”, 15/12/2011.)

The answer is that a phenomenon or process called folk etymology – also known as popular etymology – is at work.

What is folk etymology?

Let’s first consider etymology proper. Etymology is a science involving careful research which ultimately gives “an account of the origins and the developments in the meaning of a word” (Oxford). According to Wikipedia etymology can be defined as “the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time”. For languages with a long written history, continues Wikipedia, “etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during earlier periods of their history and when they entered the languages in question.” 

Folk etymology, by contrast, is not research-based. Folk etymology is what comes into play when the speakers of a particular language hear a word or phrase that is unfamiliar to them and then interpret and reconstruct that word or phrase in terms that are familiar to them. While this usually happens with words from another language, it can also happen with words from one’s own language, as we’ll see below.

The American Heritage Online Dictionary says folk etymology has to do with a “change in the form of a word or phrase resulting from a mistaken assumption about its composition or meaning” and gives the following as examples: shamefaced from the earlier shamfast, which meant “bound by shame”, and cutlet from the French côtelette, meaning “little rib”.

In a short piece about folk etymology on we read:

English has many examples of folk etymology. Cockroach comes from the Spanish word cucaracha … the Spanish word was transformed into English by substituting similar-sounding (words): cock (as in rooster) and roach (which at that time was simply the name of a type of fish). There wasn’t anything about a cockroach that suggested “rooster” or “fish”, of course; it’s simply a matter of the sounds fitting … English speakers also mistook a napron for an apron, and even an ewt for a newt.

We also know that a nickname was first a neke name, based on a misdivision of an eke name.

Coo-girl from kugel is a good modern example of a folk-etymological (re)construction. Would it be a fair guess that the student who wrote coo-girl, not knowing it was the incorrect spelling, did so because in her mind a lady who (stereotypically) fitted that description spoke in a way that could be described as cooing? 

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