Most today’s English speakers probably don’t pay any thought to the possible German root, a word that meant ‘spear,’ meaning a pointed stick to skewer the meat with. Most will think spareribs refers to how the butcher left meat on the bones.
If the German root was true, then ‘spareribs,’ by how it is pronounced, had given rise to a misunderstand that is also perfectly sensible, and that ends up with the same meaning anyway.
Are there many words that had undergone that kind of good misunderstanding? Enough of that phenomenon to have a word for?
Probably tons of ‘em, but by definition we’ve forgotten most.
The only ones that occur to me immediately, though, are not bona fide words but idioms. For example, I imagine modern youngsters would assume that we “boot” a computer as a sort of jocular image of kicking something because it isn’t working right. But I was around when it was still called “bootstrapping” the computer—shortening it to “boot” came later—which tells me that it was originally a reference to “raising yourself by your own bootstraps”. I can explain why that makes sense, if you want, but I expect most of us here already know so I’ll spare you unless asked.
And we’ve all heard malaprops that set our teeth on edge. It makes perfect sense to me that someone should believe in “taking another tact” if the first attempt didn’t succeed—perfect sense, but it’s wrong.
But you have actual words in mind, not mistaken idioms. It seems to me I just posted one recently, some word that obviously was from…. Ah, I remember, and I don’t think I posted it here, it was in an email to my mother: I realized, only a month or three ago, that “gull” and “guile” must be related. Obviously.
But no; when I looked it up, it turned out that “gull” is an old Germanic word (Old Norse, maybe) and has referred to sea birds since time out of mind but came to refer to gullibility only in the 1500s, whereas “guile” comes from Latin. The relationship in their meanings is sheer coincidence. Not exactly the same thing as your question, but close, I think.
Bob Bridges said
I imagine modern youngsters would assume that we “boot” a computer as a sort of jocular image of kicking something because it isn’t working right. But I was around when it was still called “bootstrapping” the computer—shortening it to “boot” came later—which tells me that it was originally a reference to “raising yourself by your own bootstraps”. I can explain why that makes sense, if you want, but I expect most of us here already know so I’ll spare you unless asked.
You want to see a real shift in idiom, ask someone under 25 to explain the expression “to sound like a broken record”. Or ask them what “cc:” at the top of an e-mail stands for.
I realized, only a month or three ago, that “gull” and “guile” must be related. Obviously.
But no; when I looked it up, it turned out that “gull” is an old Germanic word (Old Norse, maybe) and has referred to sea birds since time out of mind but came to refer to gullibility only in the 1500s, whereas “guile” comes from Latin. The relationship in their meanings is sheer coincidence.
I made a similar assumption for years about “filet” and “flay”. It was obvious to me that one came from the other, since they both refer to stripping away layers of skin. The misconception stood until someone pointed out that the British say “fillet” like “fill it”, which bears virtually no resemblance to “flay”.
“Floppy disc”. “Platter” (of a vinyl record). “Sounding like a broken record”, as someone here cited in another thread. Or “two bits” for that matter.
Here’s one I never thought of before: the shared meaning of both “throttle” and “choke” in an internal-combustion engine. Maybe that was before my time, or at least before I was paying attention. I always thought the throttle was what I would nowadays call the accelerator; but now I notice that its basic meaning is just the opposite. Does this have to do with the way an accelerator actually works…or perhaps did work?
Ok, that makes sense. (I don’t really know about engines; I’m a computer geek, and most of my knowledge of actual mechanics is from reading.) But what still interests me here is that although I always thought of the accelerator as feeding fuel to the engine, the word “throttle” implies that its function, from an engineering standpoint, is to prevent that flow. In other words, by default fuel flows into the engine at full speed, but a throttle governs that rate by restricting it. Is that were the word came from? It would seem to make sense.
The throttle controls the flow of fuel. The choke controls the flow of the air it mixes with (rich/lean)
This is something I have known for years, but only now did it occur to me that a definition for throttle, as an act upon a person in a fight, is “to choke.” I wonder how that came to be.
To choke is to almost or entirely to extinguish flow. Think “choke point”. Because air is so thin, you need to severely restrict it in order to achieve much. I can’t think of anyone choking off the flow of anything viscous.
Throttling, on the other hand, often in done in moderation – although when someone is really annoying, one wants to exercise “extreme prejudice.”
But yes, chokes and throttles are both valves. They limit flows, but do not impel them.
Concerning the misunderstanding subject at top-
“Try a different tack” lends itself to two mis’s: (1)tactic, and (2) tact as the rubbing shoulders art- against the true ‘tack’ being a selected course to steer a sailboat.
Cc: The misunderstanding would be ‘multiple copies’ against ‘carbon copies.’ Unless ‘carbon copy’ is a misunderstanding from something else?
Two bits : A couple of trifles against the true meaning of 25 cents.
Floppy disk? The 8-inch thing was actually floppy as a pup’s ear , right? Is there a more true understanding?
The original 8″ floppy was actually fairly stiff, As time went on they started making both 8″ and the later 5.25″ mini-diskettes of thinner and thinner plastic – .but they never were what I’d call floppy
Two bits was actually one fourth of a Spanish 8-reales coin, not a US 25c coin, and finif, sawbuck, and double-sawbuck were based on French currency in circulation near New Orleans – but the deuce is still being issued by the Treasury Department
And duct tape really IS duck tape, not heat-resistant enough for heating ducts, but moisture-resistant enough for repair of duck boats
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