Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Folk etymology’ Category

Ceramic Tins

Posted by Neal on April 20, 2014

Two ramekins

A couple of years ago, we would sometimes order take-out pizza from Boston’s in the Columbus Arena District. It was very good, but even so, since learning last year that the best pizza in Columbus is Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza, and we haven’t been back to Boston’s since. But we still have a few reminders of when Boston’s was our main source for take-out pizza. They would always send along a little container of red pepper flakes with our order, one of those little plastic cups with a snap-on lid, the kind that’s also used for salad dressing or Parmesan cheese. I didn’t really have a good name for this kind of cup until a server at a restaurant referred to one of them as a ramekin. It was slightly bigger, and made of ceramic, but it seemed like the same basic idea. Anyway, I’d keep these ramekins of red pepper flakes. We used them in a few recipes, so it didn’t make sense to throw them away. Now we’re finally on the last one, and then we can go back to using the pepper flakes in the bottle that came from the grocery store.

It was Doug’s turn to make supper one day last week, and he was looking for the ingredients for the dish he’d selected.

“Where are the red pepper flakes?” he asked. “Oh, wait. Here?” he held up the bottle of pepper flakes.

“I usually use the flakes in that plastic ramekin there,” I said.

Doug looked where I was pointing. “Oh, I use the flakes in that ceramic tin for ramen noodles,” Doug said, and continued looking for the remaining ingredients.

An eggcorn, born!

The word ramekin was as unfamiliar to Doug as it had been to me when I first heard it. But whereas I had just accepted it, Doug tried to make sense of it. Hearing [ræməkɪn], he perceived it as /səræmɪk tɪn/. The funny thing about eggcorns and folk etymologies (i.e., eggcorns that become widespread and part of the language) is that they still might not make much sense. They only have to make more sense than no sense. Ramekin is just a string of syllables until you attach them to a referent, but ceramic tin is two common English nouns. Never mind that ceramic tin is a contradiction in terms, and is even sillier when you consider that I was talking about a “plastic ceramic tin.”

Wait a minute … maybe there is such a thing as a ceramic tin, after all…

Posted in Doug, Folk etymology, Food-related, Ohioana | Leave a Comment »

Mouth Function!

Posted by Neal on June 3, 2009

And I was worried about *my* gum recession!This is Doug and Adam’s last week of school, so they’ve been bringing home folders stuffed with papers they never got around to bringing home before, and things that only come home at the end of the year, like their workbooks and journals. I was flipping through a journal-like booklet that Adam brought home, which turned out to be what he’d used every week for an assignment that consisted of copying several words in cursive three times each, then copying a sentence, and then copying the beginning of another sentence and making up an ending for it. The sentence start for one week in April involved a robot:

I bought a robot that was supposed to clean my room, but it mouth functioned, made a mess in my room, and blew up.

Adam’s teacher had simply put a line through mouth and written mal in red pen, probably the work of two seconds as she made her way through a pile of 25 booklets that day. I, on the other hand, stared at mouth functioned for a good minute, going through what must have happened to result in Adam’s creation of this new compound verb…

First of all, the /l/ in malfunction, coming as it does after a vowel, is pronounced as dark /l/, otherwise known as velarized /l/, written [ɫ]. That is, the back of the tongue is raised toward the soft palate (aka velum) as if it were on its way toward making a velar sound like [k] or [g].

Velarized /l/ is often perceived as another velar consonant in English, namely [w]. (Although the main thing you do to make a [w] is to round your lips, it’s a fact that the back of the tongue also rises toward the velum.) In fact, speakers of some dialects consistently produce [w] where others would have [ɫ]. So do some children who may eventually grow up to pronounce good velar /l/s. I still remember visiting my cousin Greg when we were four years old and him calling me Neo, i.e. [niw]. In the case at hand, [mæɫfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n] is liable to be perceived as [mæwfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n], and perhaps even spoken that way by Adam’s peers.

So Adam has in his vocabulary the word [mæwfʌ̃ŋkʧə̃n], and now he has to write it to finish his sentence. How does he spell it? Mowfunctioned? Maufunctioned? Maybe. But he can tell that this word consists of function and some kind of prefix or independent word: [mæw]. What the heck does that mean? It’s certainly not a prefix he’s heard on any other words, or standing on its own (unless he’s caught me singing “Elvira”, going “Giddy Up A-Oom Poppa Oom Poppa Mow Mow”, but I try not to let that happen).

But wait, he reasons, maybe what he’s been hearing as [f] is really two consonants: [θf]. That’s reasonable: it would be easy to hear two voiceless fricatives next to one another as a single phoneme if you weren’t expecting them, or if the speaker wasn’t clearly enunciating. In that case, the word at the beginning is not [mæw], but [mæwθ] — mouth! This is a compound verb: mouth function. Of course, mouth function doesn’t make much more sense than malfunction if you don’t know the prefix mal-. But as with most cases of folk etymology, a little bit of sense is better than no sense; a word with a meaning (mouth) beats what is to him a nonsense syllable (mal).

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Posted in Folk etymology, The darndest things | 6 Comments »

Sinking Your iPod

Posted by Neal on March 6, 2009

Sync, sank, sunk
Doug wanted me to sync his iPod yesterday so he could get some of the Monty Python sketches on there that I’ve been ripping from old records and downloading from iTunes. (At least, the Monty Python sketches that his mother is OK with him listening to.)

“OK, all synced,” I said as I handed it to him. It occurred to me that Doug and probably thousands of other kids had no idea that sync was a clipped form of synchronize, generalized from its meaning of coordinating actions to occur simultaneously to a meaning of making sure two items carry the same information. As far as he knew, the verb might just be sink, with past tense sank and past participle sunk. He’s only recently gotten much use out of the iPod he got a year or so ago, so I haven’t had the opportunity to hear how he forms the past forms, but I was curious enough that I did some Googling when I got back to the computer, and sure enough…

Some speakers out there aren’t sure what the past tense should be:

  • Against my will (my friend didn’t like MY music..grr) my friend sunk (?) my iPod with her iTunes.
  • So whenever I synced (sunk?) my iPod I’d have all my random musical shittings to listen to without really having to think about it much.

Others know that an irregular past tense for sync is a bit iffy, and explain it or highlight it as unusual:

  • But the program wouldn’t transfer every song, so I was waiting until I could figure out how to get the rest of my songs on my new computer before I sunc (past tense of sync) the ipod.
  • Another entry in the Buck Family Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language: sanc (verb, past tense), “to sync”, as in, “You sanc my iPod!”

Still others, as I suspected, use the irregular forms apparently with no idea that anything is amiss:

  • last night when i sank my ipod i got the message to update the ipod software
  • I did correct the album artist fields and deleted those comments and re-sunk my iPod and still those double albums appear.
  • I made my own account and transferred all of my songs on it, it worked great but when i sunk my ipod it deleted all of my songs that i previously bought.
  • Mel is gonna get Rose cuz she sunk my IPOD!
  • i haven’t sunk my ipod for a long time for this very reason.

This innovation seems to be pretty new, since I only get a handful of pages, and most of the hits are from 2008 and 2009. However, it probably predates the iPod, since the iPod is not the first device to require syncing. The earliest hit I got was from June 2007, when I did a search for “past tense of sync” without including the word iPod, and found this mini-rant on a thread in a grammar forum:

Incredibly, people in my office use “sunk” as the past-tense of “synch” or “sync”. All day long, they tell each other (and our software users) that they “sunk” the data. “The data is sunk!”
Can they not hear how ridiculous that sounds? Because these of course are all computer scientists, engineers and database analysts, the question of how to offer an alternative or delicately point out that it’s bad P.R. to go around saying the system is “sunk” is a good one.

This irregularization of sync is a good example of folk etymology, or (because it hasn’t become fully established yet) an eggcorn: People misunderstand the verb sync, but you don’t realize it until they use it in the past tense. Of those who use sank and sunk as past tenses, probably at least some have created some abstract meaning for sink that makes sense, like thinking of the songs as being sunk into, embedded, in their iPods. I don’t see it in the Eggcorn Database yet; the closest is lip-sing for lip-sync(h). Remind me to submit it later today.

Of course, when I said that kids probably had sank as the past tense of sync and sunk as the past participle, I was being hopelessly unrealistic. What they probably have (and the examples above bear witness to this) is sank for both forms , or sunk for both forms , or sank and sunk in free variation. What I’d love to hear is a parent correcting their child: “You ‘sunk’ your iPod? I think you mean you sank your iPod. Today I sync it, yesterday I sank it, I have just now sunk it.” Actually, it would drive me nuts to hear that, but it’s fun to imagine it.

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Posted in Folk etymology, Irregular verbs | 6 Comments »


Posted by Neal on August 16, 2008

Doug’s friend introduced him to an online game called Runescape. Doug informed me that the name is a compound of rune and scape when we were talking about the game a few days ago…

Me: You’re calling it Rune Scape, but maybe it’s really called Run, Escape!
Doug: Daaad, don’t be ridiculous!
Me: Well, I don’t know. I think run and escape make much more sense together than rune and scape.

Which is true. Scape is a noun, created as a backformation from landscape, that the OED defines as “a view of scenery of any kind, whether consisting of land, water, cloud, or anything else”. Anything else … such as runes? What would a runescape look like? I tried to find out.

Me: So does this game actually have runes in it?
Doug: Yeah!
Me: Really? What do they spell?

I figured he might know this, because we looked up the futhark alphabet when we wanted to decipher the inscriptions on the cover of The Hobbit. However, Doug admitted that the runes in this game weren’t really spelling out words; they were just magical symbols that you’d find here and there.

Doug also said that he would sometimes “find talisman”, which I mentally corrected to “find a talisman”. But when he kept saying talisman without a determiner like a or the before it, I knew something in his grammar was different from mine. All of a sudden I realized: Doug wasn’t saying talisMAN, he was saying talisMEN! He had seen talisman, interpreted it as a compound word, like mailman or salesman, and was now pluralizing it with the same irregular plural that all man-headed compounds get. (Aside: Why is the man in mailman pronounced /mæn/, while the man in salesman is pronounced /mən/? I don’t know, but since I’ve already written about that, I won’t dwell on it here.) Of course, I’m sure it didn’t make sense to Doug that a magical object should be referred to as some kind of man, or that there could be a kind of man known as a talis-man, but that’s folk etymology for you (or eggcornization, if you wish). It’s easier to have a word that you can make a tiny bit of sense out of, like talis-man, than one like talisman that’s completely opaque semantically.

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Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Folk etymology, Kids' entertainment, Morphology | 4 Comments »

Check These Out

Posted by Neal on April 27, 2008

I’ve accumulated a number of links to linguistics posts that I’ve been meaning to recommend; now it’s time to get them all out of the docket at once.

First, here’s a guy giving a demonstration of the difference between [ʌ] and [ɘ], in a language where the schwa can be in a stressed syllable.

Folk etymology meets the acronym (OK, initialism or initialization, if you insist) in this discussion of courtesy copy from Josh Millard.

When you see a page of Old English text with stuff like Forþon him gelyfeð lyt, se þa ah lifes ƿyn on it, the first thing you notice is how different the words and letters are. And if you don’t know how to read Old English, that’s all you notice, so you never appreciate, for example, how different the syntax is. Karl Hagen of Polysyllabic meets this need by taking a piece of Modern English prose (by Dan Brown!), and putting it into Old English syntax while leaving the words and morphology unchanged. Interesting fact: Hagen was a consultant on the recent computer-animated movie version of Beowulf.

Next, Greg Larson goes on one of his celebrated rants, this time on an abuse of the adjective extreme by Pringles EXTREME Screamin’ Dill Pickle potato-chip-like salted snacks.

Finally, a couple of recent items of interest from Language Log, for any readers out there who don’t already read it. Here is Geoff Pullum on a simple argument that I’ve never heard made before that puts one more nail in the coffin of the case against singular they. And here is Arnold Zwicky on a construction that you would think just has to be — has to be — a mistake, but which seems to be produced intentionally by a number of speakers.

Posted in Folk etymology, Linkfests | 4 Comments »

Even More Contamination

Posted by Neal on March 26, 2008

I told Doug the joke that ends with the punchline, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” He loved it, and told it to his mom that night. He started out:

Some psychiatrists did an experiment on two kids. One was an optimist, and the other was a pestimist….

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Contamination, Folk etymology, Morphology, The darndest things | 9 Comments »

Turtle Stench and Propeller Rashes

Posted by Neal on March 29, 2007

“You know what I wish, Dad?” Doug asked one day. “I wish I had the power to reverse gravity, or make it go any direction I wanted, so I could walk on walls or ceilings.” He was probably subconsciously remembering M. C. Escher’s “Relativity” picture from our wall calendar a few months ago. (Irrelevant, but cool: Glen has informed me that you can see the picture rendered in Legos — or depending on your dialect, rendered in Legohere.)

“Hmm,” I said. “You need to see the movie Labyrinth.” I knew he’d like the Relativity-inspired scene at the end, and I wouldn’t mind watching Jennifer Connelly as a teenager again. So we rented it. A part that I had forgotten about was the Bog of Eternal Stench, which Doug and Adam especially liked. It was still on Adam’s mind a week later, when I heard him doing some pretend dialogue with some toy characters. One of them threatened the other, saying,

I’ll throw you into the Bog of Turtle Stench!

Evidently, the word eternal was a mystery to Adam, so with a little bit of folk etymology, he had replaced [itr̩nl̩] with [tr̩ɾl̩]. I wonder if he now believes turtles must smell really bad. If they don’t, then the Bog of Turtle Stench doesn’t make much sense. Still and all, a meaning that doesn’t make sense is better than no meaning at all, and hence the existence of folk etymology.

Doug has done some folk etymology of his own recently. As he was getting ready for bed one night, he looked at his thigh and said,

Dad, I think the propeller rash is coming back!

That would be the Henoch-Schonlein purpura rash that he’d gotten a few weeks earlier. I’ve told him again and again that the word is purpura, and that it’s Latin for “purple,” but it doesn’t matter. Whenever he talks about that rash he had, or thinks he’s getting again, it’s a propeller rash.

Posted in Folk etymology, The darndest things | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Folk etymology, LSA, Potty on, dudes!, Reviews | 2 Comments »

Once is Happenchance, Twice is Cool Incidence

Posted by Neal on July 16, 2006

While I was watching a morning news show a few weeks ago, the newscaster asked his interview subject if some incident had been planned, or if it had just been “happenchance.” Happenchance? I thought. Doesn’t he mean happenstance? Sure he does. I remember when I learned the word, back in seventh grade: I was reading Goldfinger by Ian Fleming, where I learned that “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” The newscaster, I figured, must have heard the word happenstance, not understood what the stance part meant, and substituted the more sensible chance by folk etymology.

Funny that I should have come across a folk-etymologized version of happenstance, since it wasn’t too long ago that I heard a folk-etymologized version of coincidence, too. It came from Doug, who was recounting one of his favorites stories about our cats. It was about the time that Flowers and Nick had been fighting up on the bridge that runs over our dining room, and Nick managed to push Flowers over the edge. Flowers went tumbling ten feet to the floor. His fall, however, was broken by my wife, who happened to be walking under the bridge at that moment. She got some angry red scratches on her chest from the incident, and Doug got his funny story. As he put it,

That was a cool incidence how Mommy was walking under the bridge just when Nick was pushing Flowers off.

Coincidence has been turned into cool incidence by other people, too, as I found when I Googled the phrase. Usually, though, I can’t tell if they’re doing it for humorous effect or seriously. Meanwhile, Doug’s replacement of co- by folk etymology also happens in his pronunciation of cooperation as cool operation. Anyway, I thought, wasn’t that interesting: two words referring to the occurrence of unlikely or enexpected events, both words undergoing folk etymology. It ought to make for a nice blog posting.

Unfortunately, subsequent research spoiled the story. It turns out happenchance might not be folk etymology after all. According to the OED, happenstance itself is a fairly recent coinage, a blend of happen with circumstance, and the earliest citations for it and happenchance are within ten years of each other in the early 20th century. It could well be that happenchance came first, and happenstance arose as a mutation of it, or that the words were invented independently. Even so, I think the folk-etymology story is more likely. In the case where happenchance came first, there is little motivation to replace the intuitive chance with the less obvious clipped form stance. On the other hand, in the case where happenstance comes first, the replacement of the less obvoius stance with the more obvious chance makes more sense.

Posted in Folk etymology, The darndest things | 3 Comments »

Till Morning is Night

Posted by Neal on January 3, 2005

In my last post, I mentioned the substitution of we travel so far for we traverse afar in the Christmas carol “We Three Kings.” I called this a folk etymology, but actually that’s the wrong term. Folk etymology is what happens when a speaker hears a word that doesn’t seem to make sense, and alters it so that it does; for examples, see this definition.

Over the past year at Language Log, a finer distinction has been under development: Folk etymology is reserved for such a tweaking that (1) has caught on and (2) is phonetically distinct from the original word; eggcorn is now used to refer to a folk etymology that (1) hasn’t caught on and (2) is phonetically identical to the original word, revealing itself only when written down. The canonical example of an eggcorn is the one that became the name for the phenomenon: eggcorn, which is phonetically identical to acorn for the speakers who have it in their lexicon. Cases in which only one of the two conditions for either label is met are a gray area.

As for the travel so far error, I next figured the more accurate term was malapropism, wherein a speaker substitutes one entire word for another that sounds similar. The other cases I had in mind from Doug and Adam’s Christmas play are malapropisms:

  • (Adam, singing “What Child Is This”)
    Haste, haste to bring him log (laud)

  • (other kids, singing “Away in a Manger”)
    And stay by my cradle till morning is night (nigh)

But looking again at travel so far, since this involves the mishearing of a phrase rather than a single word, instead of a malapropism, I guess I’d have to call it a mondegreen. There’s a fun listing of other mondegreens from Christmas songs here at There are even some from “We Three Kings,” but not travel so far.

The Snopes people say this about mondegreens and Christmas songs:

Christmas carols and other holiday songs, rife as they are with seldom-heard words and phrasings and clever wordplay, are fertile fields for the sowing of mondegreens–especially when children, with their limited vocabularies, are involved.

I couldn’t have said it better, so I’ll just say that the same goes for malapropisms. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a few folk etymologies and eggcorns hiding in kids’ renditions of some of these songs, too.

Posted in Christmas songs, Folk etymology, Phonetics and phonology | 1 Comment »