More Names of Plants, Food, and Drinks Formed by Folk Etymology

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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This post lists words derived from words in other languages as a result of folk etymology, a process by which speakers adopt the foreign terms after revising them by using existing elements from their native language.

acorn: This word is descended from the Old English term aecerne, meaning “tree nut” but originally referring in various forms in Germanic languages to the trunk of a tree; by folk etymology, the current spelling derived from a false association with ac (“oak”) and corn (“grain”). (The word is, however, related to acre.)
ketchup/catsup: Ketchup, which stems from various spellings of a Malay word probably based on the Chinese term koechiap, meaning “brine of fish,” originally referred to a fish sauce but now generally pertains to the tomato-based condiment; the word became a catch-all term for a variety of sauces and gravies, of which the most predominant in the United States, by the early nineteenth century, was tomato based. The variant catchup was eventually altered, perhaps from the influence of sup, to catsup, but ketchup predominates.
chestnut: The name of a type of tree, the wood harvested from it, and the edible nut it produces stems from the Latin term castanea (probably itself borrowed from a language of Asia Minor) by way of Old French and Middle English. By the early 1500s, it was (redundantly) called a chesten nut; that word developed into the current form.
couch grass: This term for various types of grass has nothing to do with furniture. The word couch, and variants quack, quitch, twitch, and witch, are all corruptions of the Old English word cwice, meaning “alive” and also the forebear of quick, meaning “alive” in addition to its primary sense of “fast” (as in the phrase “the quick and the dead,” which alludes to contrasting states of being).
dogwood: The first element of these names for various trees and shrubs and wood produced by dogwood trees, and the berries they produce, has nothing to do with canines; dogwood is a corruption of dagwood, with the same first element as dagger. (The very hard wood of the tree was used for making arrows and skewers.)
gin: Gin, the name for a liquor flavored with juniper berries, is a truncation of genever, related to the Old French term geniévre and the Dutch word jenever, all of which derive from the Latin word juniperus.
gingerbread: The name of the molasses- and ginger-based confection has nothing to do with bread; the term derives from the Old French word gingembrat, a variation of gimgembre, meaning “ginger.” Gingembrat, and its Middle English derivation gingebred, referred originally to a ginger paste used both in cooking and medicine.
gooseberry: This shrub and its berry have no association with waterfowl; the first element may be a corruption of the Old French term grosele or the German word Krausebeere.
jerky: The name of the dried meat is from the word ch’arki, from Quechua, the language of the Incas, by way of the American Spanish term charqui, meaning “jerked meat.” (Jerked means “sun-dried.”)
Jerusalem artichoke: The name of this sunflower and its edible tubers has no association with the Middle Eastern city; the first word is a corruption of the Italian term girasole (“sunflower”). (The second element of that word, which was adopted directly into English, is from the Latin word sol, meaning “sun.”)
rosemary: The name of this herb has nothing to do with the rose or the name Mary; it is a corruption of rosmarine, from the Latin term rosmarinus, meaning “dew of the sea,” alluding to the flourishing of the plant near coasts. (Marinus, from which marine is derived, means “from the sea.”)
sandalwood: Various types of wood have been used to make sandals, but sandalwood is not one of them. Sandal, in this word, derives from the Sanskrit term čandana-m, which may have alluded to its use for burning incense. (That Sanskrit word, which passed through Greek, Latin, Old French, and Middle English in various forms, may be related to the Latin word candere, meaning “glow” or “shine,” from which candle is descended.)
shamrock: There’s no connection between the clover and the notion of a fake stone; shamrock is merely the Anglicized spelling of the Irish word seamrog.
spare rib: This term for a cut of pork ribs alludes to its scarcity of fat, but the source is the Middle Low German word ribbesper; sper meant “spear” or “spit” and referred to the method of roasting the meat on a spit. (Spear, spar, and spire are all related.)

(This post is a sequel to a previous post.)

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