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Reflections: How Do You Say It?

Reflections
How Do You Say It?
By William L. Bulla

The process of consciously, or unconsciously, changing the shape of a word in a language is known as "folk etymology". It frequently occurs when one language "borrows" a word from another and the speakers of the borrowing language mishear, or misunderstand the origin of, the original word.
An example of this is the word, "woodchuck", a name derived from a word in one of the Algonquian languages spoken by Native Americans. The English-speaking settlers in North America found these words hard to pronounce, so they substituted syllables that sounded more familiar and yet approximated the original sound; hence "woodchuck."
Another example is "chaise lounge". The French expression "chaise longue" means "long chair." To many unobservant readers the word "longue" computes to "lounge". If one lounges in a chair that lets you put your feet up, why not call it by that name. Now many retailers advertise "chaise lounges" for sale.
"Welsh rarebit", an alteration of "Welsh rabbit", is an example of folk etymology. It seems to be based on the belief that nobody could describe melted cheese on toast as 'rabbit'. But "Welsh rabbit" is correct. The dish originated in Wales, and was popular in 18th century English cookbooks as a "luscious supper or tavern dish based on fine cheddar-type cheeses and wheat breads."
Old English "scamfaest", which meant "caught in shame" has been changed to "shamefaced": showing embarrassment or displaying shame, especially by blushing. The word "posthumous" is associated with death, both in meaning and in form. Our word goes back to the Latin word "postumus", meaning, "last born" and "last or final." "Postumus" was largely used about events occurring after death but not exclusively so, since the word was simply one of the superlative forms of the adverb "post", meaning "subsequently or afterward." Because of its use in connection with death, however, later Latin writers decided that the last part of the word must have to do with humus": "earth," "to bury", and began spelling the word "posthumous".
Other changes due to folk etymology include: "buttonhole" from "buttonhold", which originally was a loop of string that held a button down; and "asparagus" which in England became "sparrow-grass". The American Grizzly bear is so named because its hair is "grizzled" or silver-tipped, but its name was later mistakenly derived from "grisly" meaning "horrible". This error has been perpetuated in the grizzly bear's scientific name: Ursus arctos horribilis.
There is one expression that I have heard pronounced many different ways over the years as I have traveled into different states. What do you say? Which term do you use: "kitty-corner", "kit-a-corner", "kitty-cornered", "cat-a-corner" "cater-corner", catty-corner", "cat-a-cornered", "caddy-corner" or "caddy-cornered", when you are referring to something located on a diagonal across from something else?
The word started out in England, in 1577, as "cater-corner". "Cater" is an Anglicization of the French "quatre," which meant "four", and "cater-corner" or "cater-cornered" originally meant, "four-cornered." It became an English dialect word meaning "diagonally."
According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, "cater-corner" first appeared in the Southern U.S. around 1883. It originally was used to mean "askew" or "out of line." Before long the definition began to mean "diagonally across" and then the word "cater" was being pronounced "catty" or "kitty". As the expression moved throughout U.S., the many variations listed above began to be used. What form do you use? How do you say it?

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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