Folk etymology

Folk etymology (народна етимологія; narodna etymolohiia). A treatment of words (mostly foreign) whose morphological structure does not fit into the existing pattern of a given language. In folk etymology a part or several parts of an ‘abnormal’ word undergo a modification, being replaced by similar-sounding morphemes of that language. By the same token the rest of the word, even if it remains semantically obscure, acquires the function of a ‘normal’ morpheme. For example, as represented by Chuvash, a Turkic word, vismen (measure), was modified in Ukrainian into bezmin ([a kind of] steelyard), with the ‘prefix’ bez- (without) and the ‘root’ -min- (change) compatible with Ukrainian prefixes and roots both structurally (consonant + vowel + consonant) and semantically (correct scale, scale without cheat). In čavun (cast iron), also based on a Turkic word (cf Chuvash tšugun), a ‘root,’ čav- as in čavyty (crush), was introduced, thus isolating a ‘suffix’ -un, devoid in this word of any semantic function, but fitting into a typical structure of Ukrainian suffixes (vowel + consonant).

Being an important device in the naturalization of loanwords, folk etymology was, in Old and Middle Ukrainian language, broadly applied to words and names of Germanic and Turkic origin. An example of the former is barvinok (periwinkle), with a historically ‘false’ root, barv(a) (color). It came originally from the Latin word, pervinca, through the German Bärwinkel (where it was folk-etymologized into a ‘compound’ word—Bär [bear] and Winkel [corner]) and the Polish barwinek. In the case of words borrowed through written channels and used primarily by intellectuals, folk etymology is mostly resisted. In Old and Middle Ukrainian this applies to most words of Greek (see Hellenisms) and Church Slavonic origin. Folk etymology in such words is more often than not limited to the speech of the uneducated and, if used in literary work, serves as a comic device to ridicule the ‘low’ language of the common people (hence the very name folk etymology). Such usage may be found in satiric and humoristic genres and is especially typical of the ‘low genres’ of the classical school; an example is krutopopy (literally, stern priest), from the Greek protopapas (archpriest) in Ivan Kotliarevsky's travesty of the Aeneid (Eneïda, 1798).

George Yurii Shevelov

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

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