Fake etymology

A fake etymology, also known as a false etymology, is an invented explanation (etymology) for the origin of a word. Many vulgar words in particular have been subject to such invented etymologies, most of which have very recent 20th century origins. Sometimes, these etymologies are then propagated through the culture by others, either because they were taken seriously by mistake, or simply because they enjoyed the joke and wanted to pass it along. Fake etymologies — constructed accounts of a word or phrase's history which are incorrect — should be distinguished from folk etymology, the linguistic process by which a word or phrase is modified based on a popular misunderstanding of its origin.

While "folk etymology" is occasionally encountered as a synonym for "fake etymology", that usage is rare amongst linguists.



  • F.U.C.K. (for fuck). This fake etymology suggests that the term "fuck" originated as an acronym, standing for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge". According to this etymology, adulterers in medieval England would be charged with the crime of unlawful carnal knowledge. After a while the charge was shortened on the charge sheet to "F.U.C.K.", and so the term came to mean the act of adultery. There are a number of variations on this theme - the same acronym was posted on stocks where adulterers were publicly humiliated. Another variation suggests that F.U.C.K stands for "Fornication Under Consent of the King", supposedly posted on the doors of those permitted to reproduce at a time of medieval population control, or to indicate that a brothel had paid its tax and was licensed to operate. These etymologies are clearly false: acronyms were not widely used before the 20th century, and "fuck" derives from English's Germanic roots.
  • "Fuck you". There is also the one about the archers who had their middle fingers removed in medieval times to keep them from properly aiming their arrows; however; they would defiantly raise their mangled hands to the enemy and claim they could still "pluck yew". English longbow archers caught by the enemy at Agincourt would supposedly have their bow fingers amputated, since at that time the longbow was a devastating weapon, giving great advantage to the English. Unaffected archers would taunt the enemy by raising two fingers to show they were still intact - the "V-sign" survives to this day as an insulting gesture. This is, however, an untrue story.
  • Pommy, an Australian slang term for a person of British descent or origin. The true origins of the term remain obscure, but a common fake etymology suggests that the term arises from the acronym P.O.M.E, for "Prisoner of Mother England", which term was supposedly used on documentation accompanying English convicts transported to Australia.
  • S.H.I.T. (for shit). This fake etymology suggests that the origin of the term "shit" traces back to the farming industry. Dried manure was transported via ship. Often times it would be shipped in the lowest holds of the ship, the remoteness of these sections was ideal for concealing the smell. The wooden boats were prone to minor leakage. The manure would become damp and begin expelling methane. On occasion this methane buildup was set into an explosive charge by deck hands going into the holds with lit lanterns. Once it had finally been figured out what caused the accidents all manure packages going on board were required to be labelled "Ship High In Transit" which was later abbreviated to S.H.I.T.
  • California from 'Cali', as in 'caliente, calor' -hot in Spanish, calories, etc. and 'fornia' as in fornicate. Thus California allegedly used to be called Tierra de la California, the land of hot sex. (So as to not leave the origins of the name in doubt, California was the name of an island of Amazons in Garcia Ordez de Montalvo's Las Sergas de Esplandin, The Voyages of Esplandin, a romance popular at the time of the region's discovery. See Origin of the name California.)
  • The fake etymology for the word golf was that it was an acronym for Gentlemen Only; Ladies Forbidden. However, the word golf is over 500 years old. In the oldest Scottish writings, the word was spelled gouff, goiff, goffe, goff, gowff, and golph. The acronym cannot be formed with any of those spellings, and furthermore, the development of the acronym in the English language is mostly a 20th century phenomenon, perhaps as a backronym.
  • The fake etymology for the word news claims that it is an acronym of the four cardinal directions (North, East, West, and South). However, old spellings of the word varied widely—newesse, newis, nevis, neus, newys, niewes, newis, nues, etc.
  • P.O.S.H (for posh). Port Out, Starboard Home; port supposedly being the side of the ship (and starboard on the return journey) having the best cabins when sailing between the UK and India.
  • Welsh Rarebit. This supposedly original spelling of the British cheese-on-toast snack, pronounced and normally spelled 'Welsh rabbit', presumably indicates that it is a 'rare bit' - an undercooked, or perhaps occasional, morsel?

Fake eponyms

  • Asphalt – Leopold von Asphalt
  • Avocado – Jorge-Luis Avocado
  • Brassiere or Bra - Otto Titzling (this one propagated by the original edition of Trivial Pursuit and the movie Beaches)
  • Buffet – Pierre-Alphonse Buffet
  • Bugle – Hereward Bugle
  • Cabaret – Antoine de Cabaret
  • Comma – Domenico da Comma
  • Corset – Etienne Corset
  • Curry – Sir George Curry
  • Ketchup – Noah Ketchup
  • Lager beer – Gottfried Lager
  • LiterClaude mile Jean-Bapiste Litre (http://www.student.math.uwaterloo.ca/~stat231/stat231_01_02/w02/section3/fi1.2.pdf)
  • Marmalade – Joao Marmalado
  • the word nastyThomas Nast [1] (http://german.about.com/library/blgermyth03.htm)
  • Salon – Marquise Henriette de Salon
  • Crap – Earl Crapper (The flush toilet was indeed popularised to a large extent by an Englishman named Thomas Crapper, though the coincidence of his surname is, sadly for some, only that - a coincidence. The slang term 'crap' for faeces, or to defecate, was in common use long before this time).

Two eponyms that are true, however: the sandwich was named for the Earl of Sandwich, and the dessert the Napoleon for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France.

Urban legend etymologies

Some fake etymologies have become urban legends, many of which allege a scandalous origin for a common and innocent word. One common example has to do with the phrase rule of thumb, meaning a rough measurement. An urban legend has it that the phrase refers to an old English law under which a man could legally beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. [2] (http://www.quinion.com/words/qa/qa-rul1.htm)

In the United States, many of these scandalous fake etymologies have had to do with racism and slavery. Common words such as picnic [3] (http://www.snopes.com/language/offense/picnic.htm), buck [4] (http://www.snopes.com/language/offense/buck.htm), and crowbar [5] (http://www.snopes.com/language/offense/crowbar.asp) have been alleged to stem from derogatory terms or racist practices. The 'discovery' of these alleged etymologies is often believed by those who circulate them to draw attention to racist attitudes embedded in ordinary discourse. On one occasion the use of the word niggardly led to the resignation of a US public official because it sounded similar to the word nigger.

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