Posted by: Jack Henry | June 29, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Folk Etymologies

Oh boy! This post from Daily Writing Tips is right up my alley! Words, animals, etymologiessome of my favorite things all wrapped into one! I hope you find this as interesting as I did! (For the complete list, click the link above.)

Happy Friday!

This post lists words derived from words in other languages as a result of folk etymology, a process by which speakers adopt the foreign terms after revising them by using existing elements from their native language.

caterpillar: The word for a butterfly or moth larva stems from the Old French word catepelose (hairy cat); the alteration of the third and fourth syllables to -pillar (from Middle English piller, meaning plunderer) may have developed from the notion of its destructive effect on plants.

geoduck: This name for a Pacific Northwest clam, which comes from a local Native American term, has nothing to do with ducksor with the Latin prefix geo-, meaning earth; also, the spelling of the first two syllables is inexplicable, since they are pronounced like gooey.

greyhound: The first syllable of this word does not refer to the dogs color; it is from the Old English term grieg, referring to a female dog.

mongoose: The animals name stems from mamgusa in Prakrit, an Indic language. (It has nothing to do with geese, so the plural is mongooses.)

muskrat: This animal is a rodent, but its name is not derived from its scent or its kinship with rats; the word from which it derives is of Algonquian origin.

polecat: The first syllable of this name for a mammal in the weasel family (also an alternative name for the polecats relative, the skunk) is derived from the French term poul (the base of poultry), from its barnyard depredations.

popinjay: This older term for a parrot, now exclusively applied to an arrogant person, is ultimately from the Arabic word babgh.

sockeye: The name for a type of salmon does not refer to its eyes; it originates from an attempt to pronounce a Native American word for the fish.

white rhinoceros: White, in the name of this animal, is not a reference to its color; it stems from the Afrikaans adjective weit, meaning wide, a description that distinguishes its wide upper lip from the pointed lip of the black rhinoceros.

woodchuck: This alternative name for the groundhog derives from the assignment of two English words whose sounds resemble those of a Cree word.

Momma woodchuck and her wood-chucking babies.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services


  1. […] the end of June, I shared some folk etymologies of common animals with you. One of you asked if I might continue with an article on the etymologies […]

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