Common Errors in Etymology

The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body.

—The Reverend A. Smythe Palmer, Folk-Etymology, 1890

Popular wisdom often adopts tales about the origins of words. Sometimes these tales are correct, but more often they are not. These popular etymologies suffer from several recurring errors.

Superficial Resemblances

“Because two words look the same, they must come from the same source.” This is a very common error. To be fair, many, if not most, similar words are etymologically related, but this is not always the case. In fact, there are so many exceptions to this rule, that it is a very poor guide.

Often the error is that one word has a Latin root, while its similar-looking neighbor comes from a Germanic root. In these cases, the two words are often distantly related in that they share an Indo-European root, but they entered the English language through entirely different routes. An example of this is butterscotch, which has nothing to do with Scotland or with whisky. Scot, as in Scotland, comes originally from Scoti, the Roman word for the Gaelic people of Ireland who later (6th century A.D.) migrated to north Britain and gave that name to what is now known as Scotland. From this comes the adjective Scotch that is used to refer to things Scottish, including the whisky. On the other hand, the scotch in butterscotch comes from the Middle English scocchen, and from there probably from the Old French coche and the Latin Vulgate cocca, meaning a notch or nick. The candy was notched, or scored, to make it easier to break into pieces.

Such errors also arise because a foreign word bears a superficial resemblance to an English word. So a ten-gallon hat is often thought to be large enough to hold ten gallons of water. This is not true, unless you have an exceptionally large head. The gallon in ten-gallon hat derives from the Spanish galón, meaning braid. So a ten-gallon hat is a hat with braiding around the brim.

False Eponyms

People often ascribe word origins to famous people. This is complicated because many words are, in fact, eponyms; Amelia Bloomer gave us the name for a type of undergarment and William Bowdler was quite a censor of literary works. But, harlot does not come from Arlette, the unmarried mother of William the Conqueror, crap does not derive from Thomas Crapper, nor did a New Orleans gambler nicknamed Johnny the Toad (Crapaud in French) give his name to a certain game of dice, and General “Fighting Joe” Hooker did not bequeath us the word for a camp follower.

Acronymic Origins

There is [...] an unhappy tendency among amateur etymologists to derive words from the initials of proper names.

—H.L. Mencken, The American Language

Acronymic word origins are often posited for words like fuck (Fornication Under Consent of the King) and posh (Port Out; Starboard Home). both of these claims are incorrect.

There are only one or two pre-twentieth century words with acronymic origins. If in doubt as to a word’s origins, the first place to look is a good dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary is the most authoritative source, but Merriam-Webster’s Third New International and The American Heritage Dictionary are excellent, less expensive, and easier-to-find sources. A list of good etymological sources can be found on this site.

What is an acronym? The term itself only dates from the 1940s and is from the Greek akros, meaning point, and onuma, meaning name. An acronym is an abbreviation formed from the first letters of a series of words. Some authorities insist that an acronym must be pronounced as one word (e.g., NATO is an acronym; AAA, for American Automobile Association, is not), but not all agree with this. Those that use the limited definition generally distinguish between word acronyms (e.g., NATO) and initialisms (e.g., BBC).

There are some modern words with acronymic origins (e.g., radar, scuba). But acronyms, as opposed to initialisms, came into English usage during the First World War (e.g., ANZAC for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps, AWOL for Absent WithOut Leave). At most, there are only one or two words with acronymic origins from the latter half of the 19th century, and none earlier than that.

Initialisms existed, but were not common, prior to WWI. Mencken does not cite a single example of an initialism dating earlier than the nineteenth century, and he dates the widespread use of initialisms to the 1920s, with a usage explosion during the 1930s with the New Deal.

Although almost no pre-twentieth century examples of acronymic word origins exist, the concept of the acronym, while rare, was not unknown in earlier times. Occasionally, phrases would be made where the first letters of each word in the phrase spelled out an existing word.

The earliest example of this, although not an English one, is the Greek word ichthys, meaning fish. It was used by early Christians to mean Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter, or translated Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Fish were associated with Christ as the fisher of men and the fish symbol was a common hieroglyph used by the early church to stand for Christ and Christians (and still found on the the backs of many modern automobiles). Ichthys, which dates as far back as Homer (i.e., c. 8th century, B.C.E.), is one of several Greek words for fish. The use of ichthys as an acronym by the early Christian church appears as early as the second century A.D., but possibly has earlier roots.

A later English acronym is cabal, which entered the language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1646 from the French cabale and derives ultimately from Hebrew. The acronym has cabal standing for Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale, five ministers of Charles II who made an alliance with France in 1672. Since cabal was in English usage prior to this, this is clearly not the word’s English origin.

It’s important to note that neither of these acronyms are the origins of the word in question. Rather, those who coined the acronyms were being clever by using letters to form an existing word.

Irresistible Stories

Finally, many supposed word origins remain popular because of the tales attached to them. We can gleefully recount the camp followers around General Hooker’s headquarters or the intrigues of Charles II’s ministers. Imagining that the children’s rhyme Ring Around the Rosie is a tribal memory of the Black Death is more fun than the fact that it is simply nonsense verse. The stories, whether they are true or false, are entertaining, and it is fun to associate word origins with them.

While the stories may be fun, we should not delude ourselves by assigning false origins to words. In the words of Goethe:

A false hypothesis is better than none at all. The fact that it is false does not matter so much. However, if it takes root, if it is generally assumed, if it becomes a kind of credo admitting no doubt or scrutiny—that is the real evil, one which has endured through the centuries.

(Special thanks go to my brother The Rev. Dr. Carlos Wilton for the research behind the origin of the ichthys acronym. Two sources that he used were:

  • Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich; Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament; University of Chicago Press; 1957; p. 385.
  • Raymond E. Brown; Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John, vol. 1; Doubleday; 1966; p. 246.)

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