Date: Sun, 19 Oct 1997 10:23:25 -0400

From: "Dennis R. Preston" preston[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PILOT.MSU.EDU

Subject: Re: Etymology of _Hoosier_


Gosh, there are so many examples of the process of folk-etymology becoming

the 'truth' that I am surprised to hear a request for one.

How about a really old one:

For I would guess nearly all speakers of English (with the exception of

those who have professional training in the history of the language), the

first morpheme in the compound 'hangnail' is the morpheme 'hang.' That is

the current, psycholinguistic, morphological truth. (It is not the

historical truth, of course; the 'hang' part of 'hangnail' is related to

'anxiety' or modern German 'Angst' and meant 'hurt-nail,' but since the

damn things also 'hang' there off your nail, the folk etymology makes so

much sense that it has supplied the current morphological truth.)

If Fred means that dismissing all such stories would be a fairly safe bet

in determining the historical fact, I would (with a few hedges) probably

agree; if he means to dismiss folk etymology as a part of the historical

process of language change (in which the misunderstandings of one era

become the psycholinguistic facts of the next), that would be a serious

error. In fact, it would be no more sophisticated than one's being told

that a word does not 'have' a certain sense if it cannot be found in a

dictionary, or, more aptly parallel to this discussion, that a word

'really' means something because its historical meaning is thus and so. We

all know why words 'really' mean something (and why constructions,

pronunciations, etc... exist).


On Thu, 16 Oct 1997, Dennis R. Preston wrote:

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.

I would be curious to learn of examples of folk-etymologies that have

turned out to be "right on." I have long believed that the more colorful

an etymological story is, the less likely it is to have anything to do

with the truth. If one automatically dismissed all colorful etymological

stories as hogwash, one would rarely be in error.