An Overview of Folk Etymology in the English Language

Etymology is defined as ‘History of a word.’ A further derivative of this word is Folk Etymology. It means a foreign or unfamiliar word which is adapted to a more familiar form through usage in a language. Folk Etymology in English language is an ongoing process that is prevalent for the last 1000 years. In this process foreign words have been assimilated in the English language through popular usage.

English belongs to the Indo – European group of languages. It is widely spoken all over the world. It is a matter for research that a language spoken by a few Anglo Saxons has become the Lingua Franca of the world. One of the reasons for this is the assimilation of foreign words through the process of folk etymology. Since the time William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066, the language has been constantly adopting words from other languages. There is no estimate about how many words have been assimilated in the language; because many of the words added have lost their original meaning.

English as we know it today has developed over a thousand years to reach its present state as the main language of communication, research, trade and business all over the world. The process to reach this pre-eminent position commenced in the 10th century when the Anglo-Saxon language became pre-eminent in England. Prior to this the process, folk etymology had commenced with the assimilation of Celtic words in English.

The process of folk etymology accelerated with the domination of England all over the world. The wars in France saw more French words being adopted. Much before French words were added to the English, Greek and Latin were adopted. This was a process of folk etymology.

A big hand was played by the British Empire where the adage ‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ greatly added to assimilation of new words. The words in most cases were given a different spelling and also sometimes had a different meaning. A steady stream of words now flowed into the English language. As England expanded its frontiers, more and more words entered the vocabulary. English-speaking pioneers added new words to the language over a time. It is now acknowledged that over 120 languages have enriched the language as it exists today. There is no language in the world that can boast this sort of assimilation.

One of the reasons for the spread of English all over the globe is the resilience of the language. It readily allowed foreign words to be assimilated in it. When, the British colonized India, many words from local languages and dialects, like Hindi found their way into the language. Words like Guru, Kafir, Raja, Rani, Yogi Etc became part of folk etymology.

Folk etymology is also known as popular etymology. In a nutshell it means that a word is incorporated in the language. The word could be altered, so as to resemble at least partly a more familiar word or words. An example is the Latin word febrigugia (a plant with medicinal properties, etymologically ‘fever expeller’) was modified into English as feverfew.