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shameless pleading

False etymologies

Dude, my cousin’s sister knows a guy who was there.

Dear Word Detective: What do you call it when a word is given an etymological “explanation” that is false? I once heard a story that a medieval monk met the king’s hunting party and was accidentally knocked over by a restive horse. Since the monk was wearing only his robe (ONLY his robe) and since the robe flipped up, the monk was “em-bare-assed,” thus giving the modern word. I know this isn’t true, but what do you call the process? — Tredzwater.

Hey, I call it comedy gold, assuming you miss Art Linkletter. And besides, how do you know it isn’t “true,” whatever that means these days? Maybe it has a higher kind of truth, the This American Life kind. Incidentally, not to prolong our national angst attack over last year’s Mike Daisey/TAL dust-up, but I have a question. Would folks find the madcap memoiric stylings of TAL-fave David Sedaris (and his imitator Augusten Burroughs) so funny/freaky/fascinating if they knew going in that 90% of that stuff literally never happened? Just sayin’, as they (anachronistically) say on Downton Abbey.

The story you heard about “embarrass” is, of course, not true in any useful sense of the word “true.” Our English “embarrass,” which first appeared in the late 17th century, was adapted from the French “embarrasser,” literally meaning “to block or obstruct” (“en,” on, in, plus “barre,” bar). To “embarrass” in English originally meant to literally impede the movements or actions of someone or something (“The state of the rivers … will embarrass the enemy in a considerable degree,” 1803). But it was also used to mean “to put someone in a difficult or perplexing condition” and “to cause a person to feel awkward or ashamed,” which is the usual meaning today. The phrase “an embarrassment of riches,” by the way, does not mean that the Kardashians feel a bit sheepish about their excesses. Since the 18th century it has meant the state of literally having more money than you can spend (i.e., your spending is “blocked”).

The process that produces silly stories like the one you heard about “embarrass” is often called “folk etymology,” but it’s more accurately called simply “false etymology.” True “folk etymology” is a linguistic process whereby an unfamiliar word or phrase (e.g., “asparagus”) is transformed into a new word or phrase that may not make more sense, but at least sounds more familiar (in this case, the dialectical term “sparrowgrass”). Folk etymology often produces words that persist long after the “original” word is obsolete. “Cattycornered” (or “kittycornered”), for example, was originally “catercornered,” “cater” being an adverb meaning “diagonally” (so a building “catercornered” from another would sit diagonally across an intersection from it). But “cater” (from the French “quatre,” four) was sufficiently mysterious to enough people that they substituted “kitty,” perhaps imagining that cats like to sit at an angle to each other. The transformation stuck, and if today you were to use “catercornered” in directions to a tourist, they’d probably wander off and ask someone else.

The sort of ludicrous fable you encountered explaining “embarrass” is far from uncommon, and exhibits many of the characteristics of a classic “urban legend.” There’s the setting in a distant, ill-defined past (“medieval” is second only to “old sailing ships” in this regard),  the role of royalty or aristocracy (“a king,” “the “King,” any old king will do), sex, nakedness, or other “inappropriate” behavior, and sudden exposure (literal in this case). Urban legends of this sort are sometimes likened to extended jokes concocted for the amusement of listeners (in a bar, for instance), but I think they rightly belong to the venerable folk tradition of telling “tall tales” in the spirit of Paul Bunyan and Casey Jones. They’re fun to hear, but should not be passed off as serious history.

1 comment to False etymologies

  • Simon

    In my neck of the woods, there are multiple Embarrass Rivers (and even a Zumbro that’s a corruption of “Rivière des Embarras”). The common explanation for all of them is that they were so named by French fur traders as a way of saying, “Boy, it’s hard to get a canoe down this river will all that stuff in the way.”

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