A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
— Alexander Pope
Those who happen to be mused sufficiently in the art and science of etymology, the study of the origins and histories of words; those, in other words, having drunk sufficiently largely of that Pierian spring sacred to the Muses, are often bemused, indeed amused, by the egregious errors of those who, intoxicated by shallow drafts, merely guess.
Such errors have long been labeled, a little condescendingly, “folk etymologies.” In keeping with today’s more argumentative spirit, I’m calling them “fake.”
And yet all of us who use language feel the need to make it make sense. Language should be logical, though we etymologists know better. We have learned to accept the accidental quality of language; we know language is not logical but conventional.
But the shallow drinkers feel no such inhibitions. So it is understandable, and indeed common practice, to impute logical or semi-logical English sources for incomprehensible words we have borrowed from other languages.
When we borrow a word from another language, we often shift its pronunciation and spelling to make it make sense in English, or at least to make it a combination of English words even if they don’t make sense.
And the false guesses — the fake etymologies — can influence pronunciation and spelling. Take the woodchuck, for example. The Narragansett name for it was pronounced something like ockqutchaun, which English speakers in early New England wrestled into woodchuck. That still doesn’t entirely make sense, but at least it sounds familiar.
Cockroach, for another, is neither a cock nor the kind of fish known as a roach (which was the English meaning for roach when the word was introduced into our language), but that’s what the Spanish cucaracha sounds like, and that’s how translators made sense of it.
And guess where penthouse comes from? No, it’s not a house that is pent up. According to the detailed explanation in the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s taken from medieval French pentis, meaning something like “appendage.” But a pent house, that almost makes sense.
Golf, posh, SOS: No, none of these came from acronyms like Gents Only, Ladies Forbidden; Port Out Starboard Home; or Save Our Ship. The acronyms proposed for all three came quite a bit after the words had first been used. (And Morse Code uses SOS because it is easy to remember and send in distress: three dots, three dashes, three more dots.)
For that matter, until the 20th century, acronyms of any sort were rare. Golf goes back at least as far as 1457, before English spelling was standardized. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was also spelled “gouff” and “goiff,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
That doesn’t mean all conjectured etymologies are false. Some are both transparent and true. That’s particularly the case with compounds: shoelace, necktie, treetop, bookend. We don’t always think of breaking a fast when we think of breakfast, but that’s indeed where it comes from. Nowadays a cupboard is more than a mere board for holding cups, but that is indeed its true origin.
In most cases, fake etymologies are harmless, often amusing. But there is an exception when a fake etymology falsely implies that a word is sexist or racist. Person, for example, comes from Latin and Greek words having no more to do with sons than with daughters.
Innocent words like picnic, buck, and crowbar have tripped people up because they suggest slurs against African-Americans. There’s a word that begins with “n” meaning “parsimonious,” so regrettably suggestive of the better-known and notorious N-word that its innocent use has resulted in several people losing their jobs. And to keep mine, I won’t repeat it here, even though etymologists know it means nothing of the sort.