Thursday, June 2, 2011

Folk etymology

folk etymology
Folk etymology is the name given to the process by which people modify a strange or unfamiliar word or phrase so that they can relate it to a word or phrase they already know. It is has produced the modern forms of many words we now take for granted and is still a dynamic process in the development of English, as can be seen from the modern examples below.
There are three main reasons for the modification of the word to take place.
1 The form is foreign, and so is altered to resemble a more familiar or natural-sounding English word or root. Examples of this are: crayfish, from the Middle English and Old French form crevice, where the second syllable has been interpreted as ‘fish’; chaise lounge, the very common form, especially in the US, of the chaise longue; and cockroach, which used two English words, cock and roach, to turn the odd-sounding cacarootch into something more native.
2 Part of the word or phrase has dropped out of use altogether, or has become rather rare, so its meaning is not understood. It is then replaced by a more familiar word which sounds or looks similar.
This happened, for instance, to bridegroom, in which ‘groom’ has nothing to do with horses. The Old English term was brideguma, meaning ‘bride-man’, and over time the second part was re-interpreted. Current examples of this process are the replacement of moot point by mute point, and damp squib by damp squid. A related process, which is not strictly speaking folk etymology, is when the spelling of a word or phrase changes because the words are divided differently from their original form. Classic examples of this are an adder from a naddre, and a newt from an ewt. A modern example of this process in operation is the phrase to all intensive purposes for to all intents and purposes.
3 One element of the word or phrase is interpreted as a different word which sounds exactly the same. Examples of this are free reign for free rein and just desserts for just deserts.
Some modern folk etymologies are now so widespread that they are likely to become the dominant and accepted form. The list below shows some of the most frequent, and how often they occur relative to their traditional forms in the Oxford English Corpus.
TRADITIONAL FORM
FOLK ETYMOLOGY
sleight of hand
85%
slight of hand
15%
fazed by
71%
phased by
29%
home in on
65%
hone in on
35%
a shoo-in
65%
a shoe-in
35%
bated breath
60%
baited breath
40%
free rein
54%
free reign
46%
chaise longue
54%
chaise lounge
46%
buck naked
53%
butt-naked
47%
vocal cords
51%
vocal chords
49%
just deserts
42%
just desserts
58%
fount of knowledge
41%
font of knowledge
59%
strait-laced
34%
straight-laced
66%

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