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An Overview of Folk Etymology in the English Language

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The author is an air warrior, military historian and writer on warfare and military history

The English language is like a  beautiful girl

The English language is like a beautiful girl


What I'm going to write on is a pretty difficult and dry topic. It is not a topic that will interest most readers but will enthuse men and women who wish to master the English language. We all know the English language is the vehicle of communication in the world. How did this happen? It happened because it imbibed words from other languages. This is Etymology which is defined as ‘History of a word’. A further derivative of this word is Folk Etymology. It means a foreign or unfamiliar word that is adapted to a more familiar form through usage in a language. Folk Etymology in the English language is an ongoing process that is prevalent for the last 1000 years. In this process, foreign words have been assimilated into the English language through popular usage.

The English language 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 English language has been constantly adopting words from other languages. There is no estimate as to how many words have been assimilated in the English language; because many of the words added to English have lost their original meaning. From the 16th century when the British Empire began to take shape the effect on the English language was nothing but better. As the language is vibrant it assimilated more words from alien languages and in the process, it became richer.


The English language has developed for 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 of folk etymology had commenced with the assimilation of Celtic words in the English language.

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 in the English language. Much before French words were added to the English language, 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 the assimilation of new words in the English language. 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 English vocabulary. English speaking pioneers added new words to the language over a period of time. It is now acknowledged that over 120 languages have enriched the English 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 English 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 partially 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.

Last word

We must remember that folk etymology is actually very old and has been inherited from ancient philosophy. A term that frequently appears in this field is Stoicism. This word is part of the school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. The English language is a resilient language and accordingly, Stoicism has been adopted by it.

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The changing of strange or foreign words so that they become like words that are quite common in one’s own language is the essence of etymology. Thus the Spanish word Cucaracha entered English as cockroach by the influence of the already familiar words cock and roach. l Mouscheron (Fr. ) – mushroom; asparagus – sparrow grass; bridegome – bridegroom; M. E. shamfast ( Original English-. modest) – shamefaced.

The beauty of the English language is the ease with which it has assimilated words from other languages. That is the reason the language is vibrant and alive and all over the world people would like to study it.


MG Singh (author) from UAE on April 27, 2021:

Yes, English is the richer for it. Cariappa wanted English as the national language.

Tom on April 27, 2021:

India six hundred words in English

Tom on April 27, 2021:

Six hundred indian words in Oxford English dictionary

MG Singh (author) from UAE on April 26, 2021:

Thank you, Nasreen, its a pleasure to read your comment

Nasreen Izakiel on April 26, 2021:

It is indeed a difficult subject right on. I congratulate you on it, you have in brief beautifully explained folk etymology in the English language.

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