Thursday, July 20, 2006

Since no one's asked a real question in a long time

I thought I'd share some thoughts about our common enemy at askchaka.com: Folk Etymologies

Folk etymologies are the urban legends of linguistics; they are beliefs about the histories of certain words that arise and spread spontaneously. They are intuitive, not researched, and are wonderful examples of human creativity and our search for meaning.

On the other hand, folk etymologies are weeds in the garden of research--they're not what you're trying to cultivate, but they keep popping up. They deceive people into believing that they have insight into the "true" meaning of a word and short circuit real learning (not that knowing even the correct etymology of a word necessarily gives any insight into its meaning--but that's a topic for another day).

Fortunately, these weeds are fairly easy to spot. For instance, if anyone tries to tell you that a certain word is really an acronym, feel free to punch them in the face (unless it's scuba, laser, radar, fubar, or snafu, of course). Acronyms make great word stories because you don't need to know anything about the history of the language to create them. Just string the letters together and presto! The fact of the matter is that people haven't been coining new words from acronyms for very long. You'll notice that the examples above are all technical or military in their origin. If the word is older than the 20th century, don't bet on an acronym.

Ultimately, you can check any etymology you hear against a thoroughly researched dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary or the New Century Dictionary. Of course, they won't always be right, but if you want perfection, you'll have to wait until Anatoly Liberman finishes his Encyclopedic Dictionary of English Etymology.

9 comments:

Linus said...

aRe yoU saying that your cohert of friends here at askchaka have the intelectual attention span of a 10 year old?

Pirate Jimmy said...

tyranny comes from the norse god Tyr of courage and war.

Pirate Jimmy said...

Police Officers are called Cops because originally they wore copper badges. These copper badges led gansters of the 20's to call them "Coppers." Eventually the term got shortened to just "cops."

Chaka said...

Don't make me come up there and smack you.

Tyranny is of course from Greek, tyrannos being the word for the guy who takes over after anarchy.

Cops are the people who cop you--catch you. Although copper badges make for a much more compelling etymology. It requires no knowledge of linguistic history, just knowledge of movies where cheeky ruffians speaking urban patois taunt the "coppers."

Boromir said...

yar

Linus said...

make him come up there ! do it !

Pirate Jimmy said...

Tantalize comes from Greek also. The tragic figure named Tantilus, who's punishment for all eternity is to be hungry under a fruit tree with dangling fruits that are forever just beyond his reach.

Pirate Jimmy said...

And his name was spelt Tantalus, not Tantilus

Pirate Jimmy said...

The term "Pirate" was coined from the pyre-eating habits of swashbucklers back in the day.