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We've had some obscure words recently. This week we'll present some familiar ones that were formed by folk etymology.

Now folk etymology is a somewhat slippery term. (It can mean "a popular but mistaken etymology," or can mean "changes made to an adopted foreign word to make it more familiar to the adopting-language's 'ears'.") For our purposes folk etymology means changes in an existing word due to a mistaken popular understanding of its etymology.

By odd coincidence many words formed by this process relate to matrimony. So let's start there. Why is wedlock a "lock"?

The common Old English suffix -lác meant 'act of' (as in brýdlác nuptials, feohtlác warfare, wiflác carnal intercourse; etc.) Adding that suffix to wedd 'pledge' gave wedlác, literally 'pledge-making', which came to refer particularly to the marriage pledge or vow.

But in time most of these words vanished, -lác became obsolete and forgotten, and thus wedlác would sound odd to the ears of Middle English speaker. The -lac changed to a more familiar sound lock, which fit the meaning of the word (though not of this syllable). And thus was formed our word wedlock, the lock being often emphasized with bonds or bound.
    … surely he could scarcely avoid the gentle bond of wedlock.
    – Isaac Asimov, The Up-to-Date Sorcerer

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    And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help fit for him. … And Adam gave names … to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help fit for him.
    – Genesis 2:18, 20
God realizes that Adam needs a suitable partner, and so creates Eve to be a help fit for Adam.

From these passages, a spouse came to be called a help-fit, as if the term were a single word. (1673 Dryden: "If ever woman was a help-fit for man, my Spouse is so." 1718: "Socrates had the like Number of Helpfits ...")

OED calls this "a compound absurdly formed". Indeed. Normally the noun follows the adjective (a man of gentle birth is a gentleman, not a mangentle). It would make sense to say that Eve was Adam's "fit-help". But calling her a help-fit makes it seem that 'fit' is a noun ('fit of anger'), that she is one who helps to bring on a fit!

Language need not be logical, of course, but under folk-etymology the word-user casts about for a logical-looking explanation, and re-casts the term accordingly. That happened here. The second-syllable of helpfit changed to something that sounds similar but makes more sense.

I've played a trick on you, disguising the situation to spring the outcome on you. The original Bible phrase was not "an help fit for him," but rather "an help meet for him" (meet = suitable, fit). The term that arose was in fact helpmeet, which makes no more sense than helpfit. In fact it makes less sense, for helpmeet could be heard as helpmeat. What does Eve have to do with 'meat'? She is a mate, not a meat (or a meet).

And that is precisely the way the word changed. Helpmeet became helpmate, a familiar term.

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General note on this theme: OED does not use the term "folk etymology", so sometimes it can be difficult to know whether a term is appropriate for this theme. I'm using my judgment.

The post on helpmate is an example. What I say does not quite track OED, which says that helpmate is just "from help + mate, probably influenced in origin by [the earlier helpmeet]."

But how can you tell whether the term is (1) a new combination, influenced by the old one (as OED says), or (2) the old combination, altered by folk etymology changing an element? Is there really any difference? And if not, isn't the latter a more detailed explanation?
 
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If folk etymology is a change due to a reasonable but mistaken reading, it might be fun to look at a reasonable but mistaken folk etymology. Once again, we'll focus on the general topic of love.

The -ard suffix means 'one who', as in coward (one who cowers), sluggrad, dotard, dullard, drunkard, bastard¹, laggard, wizard (wise) and (in an alternate form) braggart.

In the same way, say many authorities, a person you adjudge to be sweet was called your sweetard. And if you say sweetard casually, an h sound creeps in as your tongue retreats from the t, and the final d become clipped. In other words, the last syllable resembles heart. That new sound also makes sense, the heart being the seat of love (witness Valetine's Day!), and your sweetard being the one who has your heart. Thus over time, sweetard mutated to become sweetheart.

This is a perfectly reasonable etymology for sweetheart, asserting a change by folk etymology. It is a story asserted by many authorities².

It is also perfectly false. For over a century it has been known that the supposed word sweetard has never existed, has never been found. Yet the old false story persists.

Sigh. Such is life. In truth, sweetheart is simply a combination of sweet and heart.


¹A note on bastardy: In Old French bast is a packsaddle, on which muleteers would sleep, so a 'child of the bast' is one not from the marriage bed. Compare German bank = bench, and bänkling, meaning 'bastard,' is ‘a child begotten on a bench, and not in the marriage-bed’.
²wikipedia, CBS News (June 12, 2001), Bill Bryson, Francis Yvon Eccles, Henry Bett, Trevor Harley, Sidney Harris, and more, including several from the late 1800s.

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Is it too great a leap from the 'marriage and love' words above to 'raising the young', and particularly to a bird that has an unusual, clever strategy for defending its nest?

The lapwing – a bird of the plover family – will flap along the ground, feigning an injured wing, to draw a predator away from the nest and nestlings. The Greeks' name for it meant "luring on deceitfully". Can you see the bird repeatedly leaping as if to fly, only to collapse amid a flap of wings? For this reason, Old English named it "leap and totter" or "leap and waver": they called it the hléapewince. The hléape syllable is from hleápan to leap, and the wince meant something like 'totter, waver', as in winken 'to wink'.

The wince did not mean modern 'wince' or 'wing', each of which came into the language later. At the time, the word for wing was fether.

But once the word 'wing' did come into the language, it was natural that winc in a bird's name should be confounded with wing. Hence the 'leapwince' became the lapwing.

(By the way: most authorities give a different explanation of why the bird was named 'leap and totter', but I prefer the minority view above. Reasons stated below.)

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Most authorities, including OED, say the 'leap and totter' name referred not to he bird's nesting behavior (as did the Greeks' name) but "to its irregular flapping manner of flight". I am unconvinced. An odd in-flight motion (even if it exists, which I can't verify) explains only the wince 'totter' part of the name, and not the hléape 'leap'. And OED's early cites have often are refering to nesting behavior, but never to flight behavior:
    1340: ase the lhapwynche … maketh his nest.
    1390 GOWER: A lappewinke … is the brid [bird] falsest of alle.
    1592: cry with the Lapwing farthest from their nest.
    1606: will lye [lie] like a Lapwing.
    1633: And left the Wood with the Lapwings policie; that they being busied in pursuite of them, the other might remaine secure within that Fastnesse.
    1669 DRYDEN: draws me off, and (lapwing-like) flies wide.
    1676: Be careful not to be deceived by their lapwing stratagems, by drawing you off from the rest to follow some men.
 
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Does the aitchbone qualify under this category?


Myth Jellies
Cerebroplegia--the cure is within our grasp
 
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How far before and after her wedding ceremony can a woman be called a 'bride'? OED has a dry comment:
    The term is particularly applied on the day of marriage and during the ‘honeymoon’, but is frequently used from the … public announcement of the coming marriage. In the parliamentary debate on Prince Leopold's allowance, Mr. Gladstone, being criticized for speaking of the Princess Helen as the ‘bride’, said he believed that colloquially a lady when engaged was often called a ‘bride’. This was met with ‘Hear! hear!’ from some, and ‘No! no!’ from others. Probably ‘bride elect’ would have satisfied critics.
What of the man getting married? In Old English he was the brýdguma, with the guma part being an old word for man. (A note as to the brýd part is below.¹) Over time guma mutated to gome, and brýdguma mutated with it: bridgume bridgom, bredgome. Then gome became obsolete and dropped out of the common language. At that point, to a person not knowing gome, brydgome would seem to be an odd word making no sense.

But brydgrome would make sense, for grome was a term for "lad; man; serving-man". Hence the old brydgome mutated to brydgrome (and from there eventually to our modern bridegroom). This new brydgrome was not a perfect fit, since grome was a contemptuous term, but it made more sense than brydgome.

Note: today a groom is a man who tends horses, and some sources will tell you that that is what was meant by the groom in bridegroom. But that is mistaken: bridegroom obtained its r long before groom acquired its horsy sense.


¹ Sidenote as to the brýd part:
Old English brýd is the source of our word 'bride'. Many dictionaries say that it meant 'bride' way back then, and thus that brýdguma meant "the bride's man; the man of the woman getting married". It sounds as if the man was a mere appendage to the ceremony!

But be not deceived: in early compound terms ("bride-banquet") the brýd could just as well mean "wedding" as "the marrying woman", and indeed in a few cases ("bridal couple") it cannot to be referring only to the woman. The original brýd was a broader term which "had the force of ‘bridal, wedding’ (the primitive marriage being essentially the acquisition of a bride)". (OED) Thus the brýdguma was not 'the bride's man'; he was 'the wedding man'.
 
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The wedding service having ended, the happy couple proceeds to their wedding night, which leads us to consider the term stark-naked.

We start with the redstart, a bird named because it sometimes has a red tail and, please note, rear end. OED tells us this start is a word, separate from the usual start = 'beginning', which very long ago meant almost the opposite: 'the tail of an animal.'

Now English and other languages use their tail word to mean 'rear end; buttocks' (work one's tail off), and OED speculates that this old start also had the sense of 'buttocks'. This, says OED, is the origin of start-naked, meaning 'naked to the tail (buttocks)', that is, or totally naked.

After start in this sense became obscure, start-naked mutated to stark-naked, with stark meaning 'totally; completely', as in stark raving mad. (But it's fascinating that according to solid reports, start-naked was, even in the late 1800s, the form used in the southeast USA..)

Your Wordcrafter wonders though. If start meant 'buttocks', could start-naked have meant 'bare-assed', that is, 'mooning' rather that 'totally naked'?
 
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Originally posted by wordcrafter:
In Old English he was the brýdguma, with the guma part being an old word for man... grome was a term for "lad; man; serving-man". Hence the old brydgome mutated to brydgrome (and from there eventually to our modern bridegroom). This new brydgrome was not a perfect fit, since grome was a contemptuous term, but it made more sense than brydgome.

Note: today a groom is a man who tends horses, and some sources will tell you that that is what was meant by the groom in bridegroom. But that is mistaken: bridegroom obtained its r long before groom acquired its horsy sense.


The mutation from 'guma' to 'gRome' interests me. I observed the similarity between "guma" and "homo", and found that the consensus among linguists is that both terms were cognates from the origina Indo-European. I couldn't find anything good on gRuma/gRome/etc. I find the explanation as to how it came about.. well, convenient but not very convincing.

I would be much happier if I could find good etymology on the French word "garçon"-- it would seem more than a coincidence that the change from 'guma' to 'grome' mimics the French relationship between 'homme'(man) and 'garçon'(boy). In French, English, and the franco-english of the middle ages, "gar" was a pejoritive prefix, whose meaning mellowed from its original (lewd) to petty juvenile delinquent to simply a boy. Reading between the lines, it would seem that calling a man 'boyish' impugned him as lacking self-control with regard to sexuality and other social mores.

The bigger question in my mind is: when did a bridegroom change from a responsible man into a foolish, lewd boy??
 
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According to the OED1, bridegroom acquired its r sometime by the 16th century, putting it well into the early present-day English period and outside the period in which Anglo-Norman was still a spoken language. It is doubtful that any French speaker would have associated homme (from Latin homo, hominis) with Old English guma. The learned would have known of the Roman association of homo 'man, human' with humus 'earth, soil', and in fact from a modern etymological POV these two words are cognate. I've never read of gar being a pejorative prefix. French gars 'boy, lad', (cf. garce 'maid, servant girl', garçon 'lad, aide, helper') had a pejorative sense in Old French. Ernst Gamillscheg, in his Etymologisches Wörterbuch der französischen Sprache (1928), mentions a possible origin for gars in the Frankish word *wrakjo which appears from the 9th century in the proper name Wracchio with a meaning something like "exile". Most other French dictionaries suggest origin unknown.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Alright then, zmj! It was back to the books for this sloppy scholar. Indeed, garçon-- tho its parentage has about 5 possibilities,according to some sources, is not related to guma, nor to grome. I erred in referring to gar as a prefix; I meant the pejorative terms related to garçon, today relatively harmlessly rendered as gars(lad), not-so-nicely as garce(bitch).

Back on the evolution of bryd-guma(Anglo-Saxon) or brudigumo(Old Saxon)to brid-grome... several sources attribute the change from goma to groma to ease of pronunciation. I guess the only quibble I find is the idea that "groom" was grabbed later to give the word meaning retroactively. According to this etymology of "groom", the word is a parallel form with guma/gomo/gome (Goth./OHG/OE) and can be found in Old Norse(gromr); its meaning in Dutch [grom] was a youth and in Teutonic [grome] was warrior or lover. I would think they might just as easily have used both terms in common parlance, and settled on the one which inferred the younger man.
 
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Getting down to the serious business of the wedding night. With our last word we spoke of the tail, so today it's fitting to tell a head-tale.

The now-forgotten Old English noun had, hade, hod, or hede meant 'person, personality, sex, condition, quality, rank'.¹ It came to be used as a suffix, as in cild-hád childhood, and vanished as a separate word.

In Middle English the suffix was in the form –hede. Some of these –hede words are now forgotten (boldhede, biterhede, drunkenhede, fairhede); others survive, with the –hede suffix mutated to today's form –hood (falshede, knyghthede, manhede, wommanhede, faderhade [fatherhood]). And one more, relevant to our tale: maydenhede.

But this suffix –hede=condition could be mistaken to mean head a part of the body, particularly when (how to say this delicately?) the condition in question has bodily evidence. And by this confusion maydenhede = 'the condition of being a maiden' was assumed to mean, and came to have the additonal meaning of, maydenhede = 'the part of the body that exists with but only with that condition'.

In time the two meanings evolved two different spellings reflecting their origins. The suffix of the 'condition' word evolved, like other such words, to give us our word maidenhood. And the body-part sense kept the reference to a body part, becoming our word maidenhead.


¹ The Old High German equivalent heit is seen in gesundheit 'sound condition; good health', and in the name of physicist Gabriel Fahrenheit meaning 'faring-condition' or 'condition of going through'; in other words, 'experience'.
 
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Getting down to the serious business of the wedding night. With our last word we spoke of the tail, so today it's fitting to tell a head-tale.

The now-forgotten Old English noun had, hade, hod, or hede meant 'person, personality, sex, condition, quality, rank'.¹ It came to be used as a suffix, as in cild-hád childhood, and vanished as a separate word.

In Middle English the suffix was in the form –hede. Some of these –hede words are now forgotten (boldhede, biterhede, drunkenhede, fairhede); others survive, with the –hede suffix mutated to today's form –hood (falshede, knyghthede, manhede, wommanhede, faderhade [fatherhood]). And one more, relevant to our tale: maydenhede.

But this suffix –hede=condition could be mistaken to mean head a part of the body, particularly when (how to say this delicately?) the condition in question has bodily evidence. And by this confusion maydenhede = 'the condition of being a maiden' was assumed to mean, and came to have the additional meaning of, maydenhede = 'the part of the body that exists with but only with that condition'.

In time the two meanings evolved two different spellings reflecting their origins. The suffix of the 'condition' word evolved, like other such words, to give us our word maidenhood. And the body-part sense kept the reference to a body part, becoming our word maidenhead.



¹ The Old High German equivalent heit is seen in gesundheit 'sound condition; good health', and in the name of physicist Gabriel Fahrenheit meaning 'faring-condition' or 'condition of going through'; in other words, 'experience'.
 
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