LINGUIST List 5.1232

Sat 05 Nov 1994

Disc: Folk etymologies

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  1. "", Re: 5.1202 Folk etymologies
  2. Michael Kac, Folk etymology, terminological issues in linguistics

Message 1: Re: 5.1202 Folk etymologies

Date: Mon, 31 Oct 94 14:38:42 ESRe: 5.1202 Folk etymologies
Subject: Re: 5.1202 Folk etymologies

I am not sure that we need to assess terminological confusion; a change in
phonology resulting in a change in morphology - or vice versa - in an attempt to
 make a word 'morphologically transparent' [this does not imply that the
transparency reflects truth, indeed it conceals truth!] as a folk etymology
functions as a cue for the next recipient to 'understand' the term [albeit
incorrectly], thus the folk etymology, i.e. the interpretation
[misinterpretation] generates the wrong reading...hope this passes the
 mustard...this is a dialogical process.
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Message 2: Folk etymology, terminological issues in linguistics

Date: Mon, 31 Oct 1994 18:23:40 Folk etymology, terminological issues in linguistics
From: Michael Kac <>
Subject: Folk etymology, terminological issues in linguistics

A recent response to Alexis Manaster Ramer's posting about curious
bits of misinformation current among linguists takes him to task for
using 'folk etymology' to refer to fanciful accounts of word origins. I
don't think that's quite in the same category as what Alexis was
talking about. It's certainly true -- and I'm sure Alexis knows -- that
as originally coined, 'folk etymology' refers to coinages in which a
word is restructured because of a mistaken assumption about its
form or meaning. On the other hand, why not use the term to also
describe the kinds of etymologies that arise as a kind of folklore?
Admittedly, it makes things a little confusing, but there is no
alternative to *folk etymology* that I know of in general use for this

Other cases come readily to mind. For example, it's common to use the
term *hypercorrection* to mean 'incorrect extension of a grammatical
pattern under prescriptive pressure' (as in *Whom cares?*); but
Labov, in his work on linguistic reflexes of social stratification uses it
to mean something quite different, namely the use of the high
prestige value of a variable by socially insecure upwardly mobile
speakers to a greater degree than its use by those above them
socioeconomically, in the most formal styles. The context tells which
of the two senses of the term is intended, and it
doesn't make much sense to argue the exclusive legitimacy of one
over the other.

A couple of other examples: Some years ago, perusing an issue of
Science, I came upon a research report having to do with something
that the authors referred to as surface structure. I forget the precise
field the authors were in, but it was one of the physical sciences and
it was clear that what they meant by *surface structure* was
'structure of a surface'. I'd point out as well that the way in which
linguists use the term *empirical* would be very puzzling to a
Popperian philosopher of science. And let's not forget *stress*, which
means one thing to a linguist and quite another to a psychological

For that matter, the whole question of nomenclature, and the
meaning of the word *linguist* -- much discussed on this net of late
~is relevant here. I'd point out in this connection that there are
problems (perhaps not as extreme, but parallel) with terms like
*mathematics/math/mathematician*, *psychology/psychologist* and
*philosophy/philosopher*. If you hear someone say about someone
else that the person in question is 'good at math', that doesn't mean
that they're good at mathematics in the sense in which a
mathematician would understand the term. There's a common use of
*psychology* to mean something like 'manipulation of another
person by playing up to their vanity' (as in 'I used psychology on my
boss to get a raise'). I also think that if you asked people outside
academia what a psychologist does, chances are they'd tell you that
they deal with crazy people. As to *philosophy*, don't get me started!
(Not to mention *logic*.)

Sorry for going on at such length -- it must be compensation for
having been off the list for a while.

Michael Kac

PS Let's not forget the battle of some years back over the use of the
 term *informant*!
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