Date: Thu, 16 Oct 1997 10:32:08 -0400 From: Gregory {Greg} Downing Subject: Folk-Etymology (Was Re: Etymology of _Hoosier_) At 09:22 AM 10/16/97 ("Dennis R. Preston" 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 lexicographers. >(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 accurate. 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]