Lexical Investigations: Etymology

etymology, magnifying glass, book, antique, language, historyEtymology

For a word that originates from the Greek term etymon, which literally translates to “true sense,” etymology certainly has a lot of untruth surrounding its existence since it entered English in the late fourteenth century.

Whenever linguists discuss the etymology of words and phrases, folk etymology inevitably arises. Sometimes speakers of English make a mistake so often that it becomes part of the language. For example, the word “apron” came from a common mishearing of the Middle English “a napron” (from Middle French, naperon). Additionally, the onomatopoeic word “hiccup” was so often mistakenly associated with coughing, that now “hiccough” is an accepted alternative spelling.

Sometimes English speakers’ misconceptions don’t make it into dictionaries; while people sometimes erroneously believe “coleslaw” is spelled “coldslaw” because of the temperature at which it is served, this error is not yet reflected in dictionaries as an alternative spelling. However, that is not to say that one day this mistake will never be an accepted spelling—perhaps, it will take a turn like the word “apron,” and what was once correct will become obsolete and ultimately be replaced by the result of folk etymology.


Popular ReferencesThe Etymologies: J. R. R. Tolkien’s etymological dictionary of his constructed Elvish languages.Etymologiae: Isidore of Seville’s 20-volume encyclopedia, complied in the seventh century.

Relevant Quotations

“[I]f recourse is made to an argument arising from the etymology of a word, one syllable is not to be derived from one language, whilst the second is deduced from another tongue.”

Daines Barrington, “Mr. Barrington’s Remarks on Caesar’s Supposed Passage of the Thames,” Read at the Society of Antiquaries (January 11, 1770)

“Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit.”

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

“The real interest in word etymology as a scientific discipline grew around the 16th century when this scholarship started to develop in several advanced European countries.”

Anastasia Castillo, Folk Etymology as a Linguistic Phenomenon (2010)

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
Read our previous post in this series about the word karma.


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