Most people never bother to check background when they hear a new or unfamiliar word. In fact, most of us don’t even look for the word in a dictionary. Rather, we use the new term in the way we think we heard it, both in pronunciation and meaning.
This negligent behaviour has led to something linguists have labeled, “Folk Etymology.”
Etymology is the study of the origin and history of words. Folk Etymology (sometimes called “Popular Etymology”) results when we latch onto a false meaning or pronunciation and then, because everyone is using it, the falsity enters accepted vocabulary. The term originates in the German, Volksetymologie (the etymology of the people).
The idiom, “apple-pie order,” is a perfect example of Folk Etymology — both in the way the term originated and in its continued use. Everyone knows this expression’s meaning is “ship-shape; neat and tidy.” What we don’t know is that apple-pie order is probably a distortion of the French phrase, nappe plié (folded table linen).
Etymologists believe that as long ago as 1789, English-speakers heard something that sounded like “apple pie” and then proceeded to use the supposed expression the way the French idiom was already used.
Crayfish also became an English word because the original French one was mispronounced or misunderstood. A crayfish is not a fish. It is a fresh-water crustacean which resembles a lobster, although smaller. It is the word that resulted when English people misheard, écrevisse and then used it the way they heard it.
To run the gauntlet dates all the way back to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) when other Europeans first saw a Swedish Army method of discipline. In that punishment, the offending soldier was forced to run between two rows of fellow soldiers, all of whom were equipped with whips and clubs with which they tried to assault the runner.
The Swedes called this, gatlopp (gangway). However, English ears heard gatlopp as “gauntlet,” a word meaning “glove” already in English vocabulary.
Woodchuck, a name given a North American marmot, is a misunderstanding of the Cree word, wecyeka (fisher).
Cockroach is how English-speakers heard the Spanish word, cucaracha.
Spain’s Canary Islands aren’t named for yellow birds. The name is a corruption of the Late Latin phrase, Canariae Insulae (The Isles of Dogs). The Latin for “dog” is canis.
Sometimes, sloppy pronunciation of an already existing English term produces distorted etymology. To egg on is an example. This expression grew from “to edge on.”
Buttonhole (1561) is a further example, this one arising from careless pronunciation. The original was “button-hold,” but “buttonhole” was what people said.
Asparagus, often called “sparrow-grass,” is another example. So is bridegroom, a mispronunciation of the Old English bridegome.
Sockeye, a Pacific salmon, gets its name from the mispronounced Salish word, suk-kegh.
The word etymology is unrelated to entomology, although the two are often confused. Entomology is the study of insects. The Greek, entomon, means “insect.”
Etymology also comes from Greek, from etymos (true) and logos (word).
So far, Folk Etymology hasn’t altered either word’s meaning.