Date: Thu, 16 Oct 1997 10:32:08 -0400

From: Gregory {Greg} Downing downingg[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]IS2.NYU.EDU

Subject: Folk-Etymology (Was Re: Etymology of _Hoosier_)

At 09:22 AM 10/16/97 ("Dennis R. Preston" preston[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PILOT.MSU.EDU wrote:

What is it that makes what people believe not a fact?

It works for them, and/or it's the best they can figure out, or the best

they have heard. I'm not saying folk-etymology shouldn't exist. (I'm not

sitting at the edge of the sea telling the tide not to come in.) It will

always exist to some extent. What I am saying is it wouldn't hurt to

maintain a distinction between (1) the best available information on what

really happened in cultural and semantic history, and (2) fanciful but

culturally and personally resonant ideas about word-origins.

What makes what

people believe about language a set of facts not interesting to linguists?

They are, absolutely. In fact, not an inconsiderable component of what

exists in present language is, of course, the result of the effects of past

folk-etymolgies or word-confusions.

Finally, if you want to stamp some out

I was quoting Skeat, and arguing that if people want to think f-e's are

*really true*, they certainly have hold of (2) but are missing (1) -- which

is maybe fine in most cases, but probably not in the case of linguists or


(and I agree that there are some

viscious folk beliefs about language, or, to be more precise, about

language users), wouldn't you want to know the details, sources, strength,

provenience, and so on of those beliefs before you went a-stompin'?

By all means. What's your theory as to why people want to think "hoosier"

comes from "who's here?"? Does it have something to do with popular ideas

about pioneer life (people calling out to each other in the woods etc.)?

The distinction between (1) and (2) above means you observe and analyze even

etymologies that are well-known to be inaccurate historically, but you don't

confuse (1) and (2).

There is also some caution to be taken in lessons learned from medicine and

other areas (which we all pray are dominated by hard science) where folk

facts have tuned out to be right on.

There are two things to be analyzed: what actually happened historically in

terms of phonetic and semantic evolution (which is sometimes clear and

sometimes not so clear), and what people think happened though it didn't

(I'm talking here only of cases where a particular etymology is

**demonstrably impossible** given the available historical record). When an

analyst is descriptivist about the *first* thing, s/he is trying to get as

close as possible to "wie es eigentlich gewesen," what really happened in

language-history. When an analyst is descriptivist about the *second* thing,

s/he is chronicling people's always imperfect imformation-levels, and the

effects that those information-levels have on the culture and the language

-- which is not the same as saying they are historically accurate, just that

in being believed by people they have effects that also have to be taken

account of in analyzing the actual history of language. Folk-etymologies are

linguistic facts to be studied *after* they start to become current, but not

facts at all if you're looking at the actual *earlier* development of the

word (and the latter is what folk-etymologies wrongly purport to explain).

When I was at the Univ. of Michigan (near your stomping ground) at the end

of the 1970s, everyone liked to say that "history" came from "his story,"

revealing the patriarchal background of the culture. Of course, that has

nothing to do with the word's Greek origin, so it will never be (to follow

your analogy above) a "folk remedy" that turns out in the end to be true

after all in explaining the word's origin. But the fact that people really

thought that does tell you what was on their minds and on the collective

culture's mind, i.e., the progress of modern feminism during the 1970s (when

I heard this etymology used a lot). And the fact that the etymology is

historically false does not falsify the insight that generated it: the

historical dominance of men in political and economic affairs, etc. The

accurate insight is what lured people into thinking the false etymology made

sense. But the fact that the insight was accurate doesn't make the etymology


I work on Joyce's _Finnegans Wake_. Some of the puns are etymolgically

driven and thus reflect connections and patterns that are part of people's

long-term conceptual and cultural history as reflected in linguistic

history; they are "etymological" puns, so to speak. Other _FW_ paronomasia

comes from linkages of sound and sense that are not etymologically-based,

but are evocative of genuine patterns in reality or culture. So both

scientific etymology and other kinds of language-connections are useful. But

they are not the same thing. And for historical linguists and etymologists

the difference is their profession; a fair amount of what is posted on this

list is the attempt to determine actual origins or etymologies, not what

people might wrongly think the origins and etymologies are.

If folk-etymology is just as likely to be historically valid as more

"scientific" (i.e., empirically-based) etymology, Murray and Skeat and all

subsequent lexicographers could have saved themselves many decades of effort

by simply reprinting all the clever (the cleverer and more entertaining the

better!) but unhistorical folk-etymologies seen in Horne Tooke or in any

issue of Note & Queries in the mid 19th century, rather than looking into

how words actually originated and developed as best that can be determined

at any point in time.

Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] or downingg[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]