Readability tips, literacy news, and English writing advice

A Brief Introduction to Folk Etymology

Some words in English just ... appear from nowhere, absent any obvious lineage or rhyme or reason. Luckily for amateur etymologists, some come via far more obvious, traceable routes. Sometimes this is via what at the time would be considered mistakes, but that eventually became accepted parts of the English language.

When Do Linguistic Mistakes Matter?

It's very easy to get worked up about people getting things wrong. Sometimes maybe too worked up ...

But languages do evolve over time, and today's mistakes are tomorrow's Shakespeare's new words. What is important is whether or not the person listening to, or reading, the words understand them. If they do, then you have communicated successfully, and that is the goal of language. If the mistake introduces confusion, it's worth correcting. Otherwise, when you hear a mistake that might just be an opportunity to get on a bandwagon before anyone else, like a sort of linguistic hipster.

Rebracketing: Napples and Nuncles and Ewts and Doodles

One of those routes for new words is rebracketing. Rebracketing is where words are changed over time due to misinterpretation of their parts. Sometimes it means losing letters to neighboring words, or stealing letters from them. Sometimes it means splitting a word into constituent parts incorrectly. Sometimes it is the merging of multiple words into one.

The most well-known examples of this are words where an "n" has moved between the word and its indefinite article - a or an. So what once was a napple became an apple, a nuncle became an uncle, and an ewt became a newt, and an ekename became a nickname. An umpire comes from the word noumpere, and an apron used to be a napron.

This can happen with suffixes too. Consider the Labradoodle, the offspring of a Labrador and a Poodle. The "d" at the start of "-doodle" clearly comes from the Labrador. And yet, the suffix "-doodle" has made it to other Poodle crossbreeds like the delightful Goldendoodle. Something similar happened with the Hamburger. It is named after Hamburg, where it originated, but the word burger became such a common abbreviation that to many it appears as though burger came first and hamburger has been formed by adding ham to the front of it.

Incidentally, Hamburg is a delightful name for a city. Ham is a city and Burg also means city, so its name is effectively ... Citycity.

Sometimes the entire article moves into the word, or two words completely fuse into one. The modern word alone derives from all one, which means the expression all alone is effectively all all one. This is even more common in loans words, where misunderstandings about where word boundaries are can lead to words being joined. The Arabic al-jabr is the origin of the modern algebra, but the al in Arabic is the, and words like alcohol and alchemy also absorbed the Arabic the. The same is responsible for alligator, which comes from el legarto in Spanish, where el again means the.

Back-Forming: Peas and Edit and Statistic and Bicep

The first cousin of rebracketing is back-forming, where a word is borne out of assumption. It can be where a word is assumed to be plural because it ends in an "s" sound, and therefore the same word without an "s" is the singular. For example, once upon a time a pea was called a pease, and peas were peasen. However, lots of people heard the "s" sound at the end of pease and thought that the singular must be pea. And so, one pease became one pea, and many peasen became many peas. Dinners must have been confusing for a while.

Similarly, statistic comes from the misinterpretation of the field of statistics as a plural word ... which then generated its own plural, statistics. The muscle at the top of your arm - singular - is your biceps. But as with pease, it has been mistaken for plural and the singular has become bicep. The plural is bicipites.

The word editor gave rise to the verb edit, when people assumed the "-er" sound at the end meant it was a person who did the verb, so an editor must be someone who edits in the same way that a writer is someone who writes. The origin of lase is even stranger, and happened extremely quick in linguistic terms; what started as the acronym LASER turned into the simple noun laser, which then back-formed the verb lase.

Predicting Future Words

While there is no way to be certain what the future holds for any language, one way to see what might happen in future is to look at common mistakes today. Today's a napple is tomorrow's an apple, after all. I think these words are likely to be a formally recognised correct part of English in the next few decades, so if you want to look cool to the linguists of the future, make sure to use these as often as possible:

  • Apart. This is a no-brainer, it's already happening. It's effectively apart of the English language already, however much it may infuriate most readers.
  • Barbwire. Barbed wire is the original term, meaning wire that is barbed. However, barb wire and then barbwire have become more common, and seem set to take over as the more common term.
  • An Hospital, Hotel, or History. This is a common mistake, where people think words beginning with "h" should be preceded with an instead of a.
  • Kudo. Kudos is taken to be plural, despite being singular, and a new singular is back-forming as a result.
  • Alot. A lot of people join a lot into alot, so it won't be long before this makes it into officially accepted English.
  • Should/Would/Could Of. Personally I can't help but bristle when I see this written, but it is easy to understand where it comes from. Should've sounds like "should of", and so eventually that's likely to become an accepted way of writing it.
  • Wensday. The incongruity between how Wednesday is written and how it is pronounced means that, eventually, it will quite possibly change into something closer to how it is said.
  • Card shark. It might be card sharp but card shark is also commonly used (and not a mistake) and sounds like it makes sense. Funnily enough, the word sharp in this context actually derives from shark. Card sharp will disappear from common use, because the sharks always win in the end.
  • Expresso. It's espresso in Italian, but it's such a common mistake in English to call it expresso that it's likely to replace the original sooner or later. Sorry Italians, but this loan word is changing.