Author Topic: A Juggler of Words: Making False Etymologies  (Read 5871 times)


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A Juggler of Words: Making False Etymologies
« on: December 28, 2022, 12:01:47 AM »
A Juggler of Words: Making False Etymologies
By Jubal

Puns and plays on words are funny, but they tell us more than that about our relationship with words and ideas. People have been fascinated for many centuries with the problem of where words come from, and fun etymology facts, true or not, are a staple of social media clickbaits.

Finding these connections between words, whether true or not, can also be a source of inspiration. Ideas and concepts previously disconnected can click together and create ideas about a setting, story, or imagined past. Whether referring to things around the home, or links between animals and people, or relations between great powers, reimagining our relationships with words can be a route to reimagining how they connect together and how else we can imagine the things themselves. These new connections might generate ideas for creatures, settings, people, or simply alternative ideas for how things might have developed, imagining how processes might have acted differently to nonetheless create familiar results.

So what might some of these ideas look like? Whilst we always encourage true etymological nerdery, we can get a lot from coming up with alternative ideas as well. In that spirit and as examples or inspiration-joggers or simply for the sake of amusement, here are a set of entirely false etymological facts (we want to stress, none of these are true: please do not spread them as misinformation!) Maybe they’ll inspire – or at least amuse…

1. The name of "rum-butter tarts" derives from Islamic prohibitions on alcohol: some Ottoman-era Turks falsely claimed that Orthodox Christian traders spiked their butter with alcohol to corrupt people from the faith, hence "Rumi butter" or "Roman butter" after the Byzantine Greeks. A mid 19th century French chef created the modern dish for a Turkish-themed masquerade, using cointreau: rum itself started being used for the food in the 1910s.

2. The verb "to enter" comes from the German Ente, meaning a duck: German traders in the past often were told to "duck" when going into the houses of English merchants due to low lintels over the doorways in England. Asking for the translation of "duck" and finding it was "Ente" (the bird), the Germans assumed this was a quaint English saying whenever someone went into a house and the association of "ente" and going inside gradually made its way into English as well.

3. The term "wallflower" has actually reversed its meaning over time: originally it is a corruption from "whale-flower", that is, the blowout spouting of a whale, and meant someone who spouted or talked far too much. The term, popular in the 18th century, then started to be used in jest or sarcasm for people who were considered too quiet, until it eventually shifted its meaning entirely and people forgot the original maritime associations.

4. The manatee, originally the "man 'o tea" due to a gentle and calming demeanour associated with the imagination around sipping the drink in question, was one of a number of sea creatures named along this format by 18th century sailors, the Portugese Man 'O War jellyfish being the other example that has survived to the present.

5. A "socket" is an Anglo-French mixing, literally a "sock-ette" - too small to be a sock, but still there for fitting something snugly into. Sockettes that just fitted over the toes and toe-joints, leaving the ankles bare, were a fashion piece in the 1610s: the term was adopted by high-class doctors later in the century to find a way to explain the action of ball-and-socket joints to their wealthy clientele, and it stuck.

6. A number of old words for movement involve a thing used or imagined in the movement - among these is waddle, the motion done by people walking on wads of thick cloth strapped to their feet as a treatment for bunions. Paddle, to push oneself along with a pad, is also in this category - a lesser known one being to boatle, which only survives now in the phrase "to bottle it" - actually "to boatle it", i.e. to run away in a boat.

7. Microphone (pronounced "My-Cro-Fon-Ee") was a nymph in ancient Greek myth in variants of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, who was responsible in some version of the tale for reporting the sad fate of the two lovesick beings to the world due to being the only one who remembers everything that Echo says despite all her words being ignored by others as repetition. Johann Philipp Reis adopted her name for his early sound transmission equipment in the 1860s.

8. The word "bully" comes from Malay "bulan" - which means the moon. Mixes of Malay and then English sailors in southeast Asia started using the words to have a deniable discussion of supervisors who pushed them around on the sea - as the moon does with the tides, so any discussion of being "pushed around" that was overheard could easily be explained away as sensible nautical consideration.

9. A probable old word, now lost, is "aff", likely a verb meaning to get involved in things. From this root we "have an affair" where we aff with someone for their fair (beautiful) nature, and "affray", to aff with someone because relations have frayed, and we "affirm" things to firm up our affing with them. Being "affable" now just means pleasant, but this developed from it meaning to be most able to aff and get involved in matters concerning others.

10. A hamlet was originally a settlement so small that in medieval tax assessments it was only noted as having one pig or fewer between all the villagers - hence, just one ham.

11. Vibia, a member of the family of the same name which produced Romans such as the emperor Gaius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus and the author Vibius Sequester, was exiled from Rome in AD 53 on a charge of asking astrologers to foretell the emperor's death. Her cause became totemic for Roman astrology, and her name thus a by-word for trying to work things out through vague or unknowable methods - hence why we look for places with "good vibes" today.

12. One of the less successful endeavours of early seventeenth century explorer Robert Dudley was a natural history treatise in which he tried to classify animals by utility to mankind, and regularise their names and terminologies accordingly. The only two animals to which he gave the highest rank were the dog, for its faithfulness to man, and the butterfly, for its beauty: whilst science has moved on, his regularisation of "pup" or "pupa" for a young stage of either remains.

13. "Paradise" is of German origin, literally a "Parade aus Eis": this stemmed from early medieval Christian depictions of heaven and hell in which there were assumed to be continuities between them as opposite poles of the cosmology. Thus, since hell was assumed to be the hottest possible place so that sinners were burned, heaven was assumed to be the coldest place in creation, a cold made liveable by grace: to see God was to walk the Parade of Ice to heaven itself.

14. Using a carpet for flooring was originally something practiced in marsh and fenland villages of northern Europe, where old or broken fishing nets - literally, carp nets - would be piled on the floor to avoid some of the damp and risk of bare mud floors. Aristocrats from the fifteenth century onwards later referred to piling middle-eastern rugs in similar fashion as "carp-net" in reference, and the modern carpet was born.

15. In the north of England in the 19th century, tools were often loaned or lent to poorer workers, some of whom relied on these tool-loansmen to ply their trades. One part of this practice was that is the worker picked the same tool ten times running, the loansman would keep it reserved for them thereafter: liking a tool enough to give it its tenth use then became known as "tenth-use-ing", which is why we now "enthuse" about things we like.

16. Contrary to popular belief, "feeling down" doesn't refer to the direction, but to the soft feathers of baby birds. The phrase was originally "feeling downy", and implies that one is like a baby bird: limited in ability to interact with the world, and frowning all the time (a look that baby birds tend to have due to the "gape" skin structures on either side of the mouth that help the adults feed them).

17. To have "aspirations" comes from the asper, a medieval silver coin type especially used in the late Byzantine world of the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. Someone who wanted "to seek aspers" - that is, to go and find their fortune as a mercenary or trader in the wealth - was seen as implying a willingness to take high risks for potentially great rewards.

18. "Eyaaaa" used to be the standard English way to write a shout of pain or frustration. The modern, more familiar "Aaaagh", derives from British Imperial rule in India and "aag", the Hindi word for fire: it became widely known and popularised after a number of colonial administrators died due to failing to realise that locals were telling them about a fire that had started, which led subsequently to an increased awareness of the term among the colonisers.

19. One North African legend about the hoopoe, upupa epops, was that if you could get it to sit within a circle it would tell you who you were going to marry. People and especially young women thus brought loop-shaped perches to entice the birds and these "hoopoe rings" or "hoops" became a general term for larger ring-shaped loops of metal: the term was carried back to Europe both through trade and through an early 18th century Italian fashion trend for "hoop" earrings.

20. The gazebo tent, with openings on all sides, was originally set up as a way to allow ladies at some more risque and fashionable sixteenth century jousts to get a better view of the knights as they headed out to the lists, rather than just seeing them from the front whilst they fought - hence, a gaze-your-beau tent, and the modern gazebo was born.

Why not come up with your own ideas along these lines? Do comment good ones below, we’d love to see what you come up with. We hope these in some way amused you or poked some thoughts into being that might not have been there otherwise. Happy wordplaying!
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...