Lexical Investigations: Etymology

etymology, magnifying glass, book, antique, language, historyEtymology

For a word that originates from the Greek term etymon, which literally translates to “true sense,” etymology certainly has a lot of untruth surrounding its existence since it entered English in the late fourteenth century.

Whenever linguists discuss the etymology of words and phrases, folk etymology inevitably arises. Sometimes speakers of English make a mistake so often that it becomes part of the language. For example, the word “apron” came from a common mishearing of the Middle English “a napron” (from Middle French, naperon). Additionally, the onomatopoeic word “hiccup” was so often mistakenly associated with coughing, that now “hiccough” is an accepted alternative spelling.

Sometimes English speakers’ misconceptions don’t make it into dictionaries; while people sometimes erroneously believe “coleslaw” is spelled “coldslaw” because of the temperature at which it is served, this error is not yet reflected in dictionaries as an alternative spelling. However, that is not to say that one day this mistake will never be an accepted spelling—perhaps, it will take a turn like the word “apron,” and what was once correct will become obsolete and ultimately be replaced by the result of folk etymology.


Popular References

The Etymologies: J. R. R. Tolkien’s etymological dictionary of his constructed Elvish languages.

Etymologiae: Isidore of Seville’s 20-volume encyclopedia, complied in the seventh century.

Relevant Quotations

“[I]f recourse is made to an argument arising from the etymology of a word, one syllable is not to be derived from one language, whilst the second is deduced from another tongue.”

Daines Barrington, “Mr. Barrington’s Remarks on Caesar’s Supposed Passage of the Thames,” Read at the Society of Antiquaries (January 11, 1770)

“Names, once they are in common use, quickly become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit.”

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)

“The real interest in word etymology as a scientific discipline grew around the 16th century when this scholarship started to develop in several advanced European countries.”

Anastasia Castillo, Folk Etymology as a Linguistic Phenomenon (2010)

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
Read our previous post in this series about the word karma.



  1. managed security services -  September 28, 2013 - 7:15 am

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  2. stan -  April 22, 2013 - 10:31 am

    very nice

  3. Bill Kennedy -  April 22, 2013 - 7:12 am

    It is a beautiful exciting, ever-changing language, English is. You learn when to use whom or who and then the next generation changes the rules. That is what makes it interesting.

  4. Webranger -  April 22, 2013 - 6:44 am

    Gallimaufry? Wasn’t that the planet of origin of Dr. Who? Of course, with his Tardis language corrector etymology becomes a little obsolete, I suppose.

    I must say that I have always thought that hiccough was the original correct spelling and hicccup was a modern ignorance, and I’m not quite 75.

    a.gopalakrishnan and others should understand that the great strength and charm of English that has made it such a suitable language for the whole world is that it has developed over many centuries by adopting and adapting and manipulating words from many other languages. Depending on what you call your home, a house or mansion or bungalow, you are speaking German or French or Sanskrit and if it is a semi, you have moved to Latin,

  5. RXS -  April 22, 2013 - 12:41 am

    I think it’s more likely that coldslaw sounds like cold-sore and has nothing to do with temperature.

  6. Dwayne -  April 21, 2013 - 5:07 pm

    Napron makes more sense, seeing how you wear an apron around your neck. I have to agree with one comment, however. It’s disappointing this article didn’t go deeper into the meaning of etymology…

  7. lim Jstyle -  April 20, 2013 - 3:56 am

    I don’t care…look on the bright side…..I LOVE ENGLISH

  8. Gundam -  April 19, 2013 - 5:37 pm


  9. Betsy -  April 18, 2013 - 4:12 pm

    This is quite interesting!

  10. Ole TBoy -  April 18, 2013 - 2:06 pm

    I only had to live to be 81 before I learned it is “coleslaw” and
    not “coldslaw.” Never too old to acquire new info. Thanks,
    dictionary folk.

  11. a.gopalakrishnan -  April 18, 2013 - 6:23 am

    ican’t understand why english words from french german ect

  12. lobsang lama -  April 18, 2013 - 3:19 am

    i like it….

  13. Rose -  April 17, 2013 - 3:48 pm

    Very interesting. How the word “apron” evolved surprised me.

  14. Hebeestie Wallopman -  April 17, 2013 - 2:36 pm

    This article discussed apron and hiccup more than etymology, disappointing.

  15. Ray -  April 17, 2013 - 9:19 am

    P.S. #2.

    A “MOTLEY OLIO GALLIMAUFRY” would better self-indicate its own meaning by (self-)exemplification….

  16. Ray -  April 17, 2013 - 8:40 am


    COLESLAW probably comes from KALE-SLEW or KALE-SLOUGH, a soup of wilting lettucelike kale, rather than contraction of kool-salade…

    SALMAN RUSHDIE should be alteretymologized or alloetymologized as a cross-linguistic-derived-baby-name for SALMON-RUSH-DIE…

    And while ‘D’ depicts English (‘eng-lish’ not ‘ing-lish’), an olio gallimaufry (which means to overeat because of all the choices served) of language (which itself is French for ‘tonguage’), I’ve noticed that English is closing on the earliest of languages which were probably driven by homophonic accustomization i.e. protolinguistics the meaning of the voiced sounds…

  17. Ray -  April 17, 2013 - 8:19 am

    [reference.com is not responding due to a long-running script. (sic IE10)]


    UTOPIA is misetymologized as EUTOPIA–(in otherwords) ‘D’ failed to categorize UTOPIA as SLANG (usage that is not the meaning). Cf e.g. BAD is “15. slang good…” (N.B. the use of the categore “slang.”)

    Note also that UTOPIA itself appears heavily affected by Plato’s story of Atlantis deemed a myth by-and-for its drummed-up-supposed-goodness-of-politics meme… Nevertheless, that may be suretymologized–adding meaning to meaning….

    [reference.com is not responding due to a long-running script. (sic IE10)]

  18. ETYMOLOGY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  April 17, 2013 - 6:29 am

    [...] ‘Etymology’ on the Splinterwebs: — All the bets are off. — Centipedes and Wikipedes and Urban Dictionaries that hiccough. — Redefining meaning, pronunciation and Twitter-Lee-Dee,  — Oh so many Points of View, — Holding on to uncertainty. — With only Love to keep us Swarm — And ill-defining moments, — What’s an idiot to do? –>>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on April 17, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  19. Hunter -  April 16, 2013 - 5:23 am

    The etymology of etymology…


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