Folk etymology: from hiccup to hiccough

Folk etymology is when a word or phrase is changed – phonetically, orthographically, or both – to better fit a mistaken idea about its origin. It’s why some folk call a hiccup a hiccoughhic-cough may seem more plausible or comprehensible. The original impulse, says Arnold Zwicky, is “to find meaningful parts in otherwise unparsable expressions”.

Asparagus officinalis, also "sparrow grass"

Asparagus officinalis, also “sparrow grass”

So asparagus is sometimes written as sparrow grass, much as chaise longuechaise lounge and coleslawcoldslaw (which also count as eggcorns – sort of distributively limited folk etymologies). Many remain incorrect or restricted to small groups, but some become standard: penthouse came from pentis, lapwing from lappewinke, and hangnail is a modified Old English agnail.

Most people would probably assume that shamefaced comes from “shame-faced”, but the word was once shamefast, literally “restrained by shame” (fast as in “held firm”). The idea of shame manifesting in a person’s face motivated and sustained the alteration.

Some specialists restrict folk etymology to the process of transformation, but in lay contexts it’s also used to refer to the results, or to the false origin story itself. In any case, it’s about how we replace relatively strange elements in a phrase with more familiar ones which we then concretise in spelling or pronunciation.

Foreign words are a common source of folk etymologies. Belfry came from Old French berfrei, the ensuing ‘l’ forms being reinforced by association with bells. Spanish cucaracha led to English cockroach, while woodchuck (another name for the groundhog) probably derived from the Algonquian word ockqutchaun, according to the American Heritage Dictionary.

Acronyms real or imaginary also beget folk etymologies, or more strictly false ones, especially when their origins are obscure. Thus, posh is said to be a backronym of port outward, starboard home, but there’s no evidence for this; ditto golf from gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. SOS was chosen for its convenient communicative pattern, not as shorthand for save our souls/ship – these phrases were applied later.

This is too much fun not to join in, so I sometimes invent my own spurious etymologies. The following recycled tweet is not so much a folk etymology as a reverse eggcorn:

Zombie comes from misanalysis of some bee, after a formidable insect emerged unexpectedly alive following extreme hibernation.

Backstory: As a child I had posters covering my bedroom walls, and in cold weather a few flies would secretly snuggle in behind them and wait for warmer days, at which point they would scratchily (and yes, creepily) crawl out again like tiny creatures of the undead.

OK, so bees ≠ flies, and whether they hibernate is debatable, but this is no time for zoological pedantry. Send me your eggcorns and false and folk etymologies, actual or concocted on the spot. Let silliness be no object.

[image from Wikimedia Commons]
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27 Responses to Folk etymology: from hiccup to hiccough

  1. Naomi says:

    Not sure if it’s an eggcorn but I always assumed ‘zombie’ had a basis in ‘somnambulist’, and was just a shortened term for a sleepwalker. It came as some surprise to learn that the word is in fact African in origin.

  2. Kory Stamper says:

    Integrity is a misreading and alteration of inner grit, from the medieval belief that the seat of honesty was in the gizzard.

  3. Stan says:

    Naomi: That’s a plausible connection to draw, and zombie‘s real etymology is pretty unorthodox. I should have explained eggcorns properly in the post; they’re more of a phrasal substitution based on reasonable misanalysis, like oldtimer’s disease instead of Alzheimer’s disease.

    Kory: Wonderful. Alteration is of course from halteration, and has to do with a significant change in one’s direction or life state through a third party’s use of a halter.

  4. Claire Stokes says:

    I have a reverse example (if I’m correct, which is always debatable): duct tape. Strong, sturdy tape with threads through it etc.. very much beloved in these parts. Originally; used for duct repair (I’m thinking). Pronounced: Duc tape (t is silent). Therefore: is becoming misspelled as Duck Tape. Very silly.

  5. John Cowan says:

    Pentis, by the way,is a shortened form of appendix.

  6. Virginia Simmon says:

    I had a roommate once who mispronounced “aficionado” as “affectionado,” claiming it mean affection, so the “c” should be pronounced. In recent years, I’ve heard it more and more often, including yesterday on an NPR broadcast.

  7. Lin Rice says:

    If you can get past the course language, the character Ricky on the Canadian TV show Trailer Park Boys offers a wealth of hilarious eggcorns.

  8. Stan says:

    Claire: When I first heard this one I assumed duck tape was a mistake (I didn’t know about the brand then). But as John indicates, the jury is out on which form came first. Jan Freeman wrote a few days ago that both terms “have reasonable – and fairly recent – claims to legitimacy”.

    John: So I discovered. It’s a nice analogy, a penthouse as the appendix of a house, considered from the ground up.

    Virginia: Affectionado is an interesting one. Wiktionary’s brief entry calls it a “common misspelling”, but I don’t remember noticing it before. It probably counts as an eggcorn, because it makes a suitable kind of misapplied sense. There’s some discussion about it in the Eggcorn Database forum.

    Lin: Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll keep an eye out for that show (and an ear out for its coarse language).

  9. Any thoughts on whether it should be “you’ve got another think coming” or “you’ve got another thing coming?”

  10. languagehat says:

    So asparagus is sometimes written as sparrow grass

    Is it? I’ve only seen the latter given as an example of folk etymology in discussions like this, and a look through some Google results doesn’t produce any examples of unselfconscious use as opposed to deliberate play with a book-learned phrase. A sample hit: ” In the 1600’s, asparagus was referred to as sparrow-grass. (I just discovered this fact today while reading a book completely unrelated to food.)” I love it too, but I have my doubts as to whether it’s a living phenomenon.

    Any thoughts on whether it should be “you’ve got another think coming” or “you’ve got another thing coming?”

    The former is the original form; the latter is a modern reinterpretation (that makes no sense to me, so I’m not sure why it was invented, but never mind).

  11. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I’d been unwittingly using the malapropism, “What’s the skivvy on…”, rather than the correct, “What’s the skinny on…” for years, until a friend, who just happens to be a veteran copy editor at The L.A. Times set me straight; hardly able to contain his giggling as he delivered the correction in his typical pedantic tone. (Those copy editors can be such sticklers! Drats!)

    I learned that “skivvy” or “skivvies” here in the U.S. is a term for undergarments (T-shirt and shorts), and in Britain has an archaic meaning— a slightly contemptuous term for a maid, or female servant. Oh well.

    @ Lin, as a proud Canuck, I’m quite familiar w/ the antics of those
    rowdy, rambunctious, ever-scheming and totally dysfunctional Bluenosers, “Trailer Park Boys”, and the aforemetioned Ricky’s warped ‘way with words’. (Can’t say these lowlife, yet entertaining petty ex-cons instill a lot of Canadian pride in yours truly, but I must say*, their show was thoroughly ‘engrossing’, and did seem to humorously capture a certain substrata of our Canadian underclass.

    So, if our blogmeister Stan dares to venture into Trailer Park Boys’ territory, I hope he doesn’t get the impression that these guys are exemplars of what most Canadians are all about… eh?

    Wikipedia listed a few of character Ricky’s malaprop gems, including “Worst case Ontario’, “Get two birds stoned at once” and “a Catch 23 situation”… just for starters.

    Always thought the term “euthanasia” sounded like ‘youth in Asia’, which is clearly pure nonsense, and further, unbefitting, and trivializing a most serious subject.

    * The phrase, “I must say”, as any astute student of Canadian comedy will attest, was one of Martin Short’s dorky signature character Ed Grimly’s favorite catch-23 (?) phrases.

  12. Another interesting word is cowboy, which actually derives from caballero – the Spanish word for a horseman. Caballero itself deribes from caballus – the Latin for a cavalry horse (ie, an old nag!), which has also given rise to words such as cavalier and chivalry. Such is the complexity of the English language!

  13. languagehat says:

    Another interesting word is cowboy, which actually derives from caballero

    Nope, it’s just cow + boy.

  14. Sawney says:

    My wife still insists on referring to coleslaw as ‘cold slops’ – which is how she understood it as a kid. She loves it, but I can’t stand the stuff, so for me it’s perfectly descriptive of the default garnish you find in restaurants all over the world.

  15. Stan says:

    Kate: As Hat says, “another think coming” is the earlier version, and it would be my preference, but both are common. Language Log has a detailed discussion on this, including phonetic analysis.

    Hat: Fair point about sparrow grass, but I did search for the phrase on social media and found numerous examples of it in active (and seemingly unironic) use. Here are four examples. Also, the OED’s Twitter account said: “The asparagus vegetable was orig. called sparagus (from medieval Latin), which was soon turned into the more English-sounding sparrow-grass”; “Sparrow-grass remained the polite name for the vegetable until the 19th century, when asparagus returned into literary and polite use.”

    Alex: Digressions aside, what interests me is what might have prompted you to use skivvy for skinny in that phrase. I’m guessing it was simply a malapropism.

    Jane: Interesting connections between caballero, cavalier and chivalry; I’ve been encountering caballero quite often of late in Cormac McCarthy novels. Incidentally, the Irish for horse is capall (pl. capaill), which has the same etymon. As Hat points out, though, cowboy has a more straightforward origin as a compound English term.

    Sawney: Cold slops is an excellent reinterpretation. Though I steered clear of the stuff as a child, I eat it occasionally now. But I understand the aversion – and the appeal of the alternative phrase.

  16. mollymooly says:

    People mocked Jade Goody for saying (among other things) “escape goat” instead of “scapegoat”; I suspect the loudest scoffers didn’t realise that the resemblance is etymological rather than coincidental.

    Regarding spurious acronymic etymologies: the most prominent exception is OK whose true origin really is “oll korrect”. (Admittedly, it was an initialism rather than acronym.)

  17. JayKay says:

    As an avid devourer of books from a wee age, I often ran across words which I’d never heard pronounced. It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered that the brilliant shade of hot pink/red was called magenta. I’d thought it was magneta, as it certainly attracted/repelled the eye. I have a career as an illustrator now, and I still pause on the M in CMYK when preparing things for print.

  18. Stan says:

    mollymooly: I like that the etymology of scapegoat seems almost too good to be true. Some of OK‘s spurious etymologies have a cameo in my earlier post on OK, oke and other variations; I’ve since read Allan Metcalf’s book on the word and found it an excellent survey of an improbable history.

    JayKay: It’s probably common for enthusiastic childhood readers to misanalyse certain words for years before hearing them spoken. Magneta for magenta is an interesting example, and brings to mind the comic-book villain Magneto.

  19. Alon says:

    @Stan: and that Irish capall is quite close to the etymon of Latin caballus, which was borrowed from Gaulish, another Celtic language. The properly Latinate term, equus, has disappeared almost without trace.

    @languagehat: I had the same feeling as you, and indeed most current mentions of the term seem not to be uses of it, but there are quite a few of the latter if you search around. They are infrequent enough that COHA does not pick any recent examples, though.

  20. Stan says:

    Alon: Right. Though equus does linger in equine and equestrian, which are quite common. As for sparrow grass: most of the examples I found were from the UK, which might help explain its relative lack in COHA.

  21. ASG says:

    As a child, I saw a lot of references to venison (game meat) in books like Little House on the Prairie. I was a strong reader but that word just didn’t parse properly for me; it wasn’t until I was well over thirty that I learned that it doesn’t, in fact, rhyme with tension.

    • Stan says:

      ASG: An easy mistake to make, I think, given the relative frequency of words ending in -ension rather than -enison. The fact that the misconception stayed with you so long goes to show how much we see what we expect to see.

  22. Stan says:

    Michael Quinion recently looked at the history of asparagus on World Wide Words and found that the folk etymology sparrow grass became common in the 17th–18th centuries:

    In the eighteenth century sparrowgrass was so much the standard and polite term that John Walker commented in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary in 1791: “‘Sparrow-grass’ is so general that ‘asparagus’ has an air of stiffness and pedantry”…
    During the nineteenth century the wheel turned yet again, in part because of pedagogical opposition to a form considered to be no more than an ignorant mistake, bringing asparagus to the fore and relegating sparrowgrass to what the New English Dictionary rather loftily described in 1885 as “dialect or vulgar” status.

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