Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

LSA 2007: Book Report

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2007

When I wandered through the book exhibit last week, I saw Heidi Harley‘s book English Words; on display. She’d plugged it on her blog, but this was the first chance I had to look inside it. I flipped to the section on “accidental words,” since that’s where she talked about backformations. The first thing I found there, though, was some stuff on folk etymology, including this:

For a long time when I was a teenager, I thought the word facetious was related to the word feces — during that time, for me, facetious was a fancy way of saying “full of shit.” I had created a folk etymology. (p. 92-93)

Hah! Love that scatological humor. This one’s almost as good as the widely and falsely held belief in the execrable/excrement connection. BTW, has anyone seen a movie where a teacher hands back some student essays or tests, and says to the class, “Your {papers, tests, whatever} were execrable!” and one surfer-dude-type guy says, “Excellent!” and the teacher tells him, “I was comparing them to excrement!” That was my tipoff that there was some folk etymology going on with that word, but a search for quotation keywords in the IMDB fails to identify the movie. Oh, and before we move on, let’s not forget fallacious and fellatious.

I bought the book but haven’t read anything else in it yet. I’m hoping she’ll clarify the difference between folk etymology and eggcorns. As near as I can tell, when linguists refer to eggcorns, they are talking about folk etymologies that haven’t caught on enough to have gained legitimacy in most speakers’ minds. Hey, wait, what am I sitting here writing this for, when I can find out what she says right now? Let’s see … OK, if I understand her right, her take is that folk etymology is a cover term for eggcorns and mondegreens. Do any of you eggcorn enthusiasts have an opinion on this definition?

I also bought David Wilton’s Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Like many books of this type, it’s good, entertaining bathroom/airplane/waiting-for-kids-at-the-bus-stop reading, but unlike many others, the author makes a concerted effort not to spread bullshit, giving numerous OED and other citations in the index, including many from the online archives of the American Dialect Society. After reading some of this book, I was mad at Erik Larson. He wrote The Devil in the White City, and repeated the story that Chicago’s nickname Windy City was a reference to its uppitiness in campaigning for the 1896 Columbian Exposition to take place in Chicago. I believed him, but referring back to the book now, I see that he indeed did not give any citations for this claim, just like David Wilton said people tended not to.

I bought W. Cowan and J. Rakušan’s Source Book for Linguistics, which is an entire book full of linguistic exercises. As a reviewer on the back cover said, “If you’ve been teaching upper-level undergraduate introductions to linguistics with Cowan and Rakušan, then you’ve been scrambling about in search of examples and exercises in phonetics, phonology, morphology and syntax long enough.” Also historical reconstruction problems, with data all nicely selected and cleaned up for you. If you’re not teaching linguistics classes, it’s a nice book of logic puzzles to take on an airplane with you, if you’re tired of (or never liked) crosswords, word searches, logic puzzles, or (these days) sudoku.

The only other title I bought was Robert D. Van Valin’s An Introduction to Syntax, mainly for the chapter at the end with thumbnail sketches of several flavors of syntactic theory, all compared in one place. Haven’t read it yet, but it looked useful enough for me to buy it for that reason alone.

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2 Responses to “LSA 2007: Book Report”

  1. Michael said

    I’ve come to consider a folk etymology any belief that may or may not affect the usage or pronunciation of the word, but that is based on a false assumption of the origins or historical uses of the word.

    Instead of a simple mispronunciation or spelling of a word or phrase (eg eggcorn, for all intensive purposes, wind-chill wipers…etc) the folk etymology sees and understands the word when used “correctly” but creates a nice fake etymology.

    Some of the common examples would be the alleged origin of “posh” as an acronym for “Portside Out, Starboard In” — the story being that those rooms/cabins on a cruise ship with a good view both coming and going were more expensive. The proposed acronym from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is another popular folk etymology.

    Although these are mistaken etymologies they don’t change the spelling or pronunciation of the phrase or word.

    There may be eventual semantic effects to some folk etymologies. Jejune which comes from the Latin for “fasting” and originally meant empty vapid or unfulfilling, likely acquired the meaning ‘immature’ or ‘childish’ from a folk etymological connection to ‘juvenile.’

    A similar folk etymology from analogy turned livid from ‘pale’ to a strong connotation of redness or brightness from similarity with vivid. This is even though the meaning ‘pale’ was already used to mean ‘intensely angry.’

    So as I use ‘folk etymology’ the usage or semantics may or may not change but unlike an eggcorn or mondegreen it’s not from mishearing.

  2. [...] Word Myths [...]

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