October 30, 2020

Words of the Month - Eggcorns and Folk Etymologies

         It is not uncommon that when someone hears (or mis-hears) a word with an unfamiliar element, they may reinterpret the word to one that makes more sense to them.  Eggcorn was an example of this, a misinterpretation of acorn, cited by a linguist in 2003, which then gave the phenomenon its name.  Although eggcorns spring from ignorance, they often exhibit a certain amount of creativity in order to come up with a new, more “logical” interpretation of an unknown word or phrase.  Some examples I’ve encountered include
    rod iron instead of wrought iron
    for all intensive purposes instead of for all intents and purposes
    one foul swoop instead of one fell swoop
    tow the line instead of toe the line
    I could of instead of I could have
    hay-day instead of hey-day
        You can see that some of these are due to the presence of archaic words (wrought, fell) that some speakers aren’t familiar with, but others seem to be simply misinterpretation.  Eggcorn phrases can also occur when speakers take a phrase all-of-a-lump and fail to consider the actual meaning of the words.  For example
    I could care less instead of I could not care less
    no certain terms instead of no uncertain terms
and even nip it in the butt instead of nip it in the bud!
        For more examples and related phenomena, check out prior posts on Mondegreens, Back-Formations, Ghost Words, Sneaky Critters, and The Curse of the Wandering N.
        Eggcorns are generally understood to be errors (except, perhaps by their speakers), but what happens when they become widespread?  Eventually they can become accepted as proper words, and then it’s called folk etymology.  Again, the changes often exhibit a certain logic, though it can be a bit of a stretch.
    andiron originally came from Old French andier, but it made so much more sense that it should somehow be related to iron.

    crayfish/crawfish were crevis in Middle English, but somewhere along the way people interpreted the word as including fish, since they live in the water and all.

    helpmate came originally from the King James Bible’s phrase “a help meet for him,” meaning “a helper appropriate or equal to him.”  This phrase was first misinterpreted to take help-meet as a helpful partner, at which point folk etymology deemed mate to be a more logical word in the context.
    muskrat originally came from Algonquian musquash, but both musk and rat seemed far more reasonable to describe this rodent that does indeed secrete musk.

    chaise lounge originally came from the French chaise longue, but while not everyone would know that longue meant “long”, everyone certainly knows that it’s something you lounge on.
    female was originally from Latin femella, a diminutive for woman (femina).  In the late 14th century it was erroneously reinterpreted to relate to male (which, by the way, also derived from a diminutive, of Latin mas).
    hey-day was originally an exclamation, and may have gained its meaning of “high point” or “time of greatest achievement” through a folk etymology association with high day, which changed the ending to day, but didn’t change the spelling of the hey.
        The language is chock full of examples of folk etymology (including belfry gaining its bell, shamefaced gaining its face, dormouse gaining its mouse, and witch hazel gaining its witch).  They began as errors but eventually became fully accepted as correct.  Will “rod iron” be next?  I hope not, because I think wrought is a particularly lovely word, but language is one of the few places where enough wrongs do indeed make a right.  Only time will tell.

[Pictures: Detail of Quercia (oak), wood block print by Giorgio Liberale, from I discorsi by Mattioli, 1568 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Crayfish, color wood block print by Yochijiro Urushibara, c 1920 (Image from Victoria & Albert);

Rococo chaise longue, illustration from Nordisk familjebok, 1905 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]

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