As the recipient of many dumb chain emails in my life, I’ve come across various “facts” that I naïvely believed to be true, many of them etymological histories of words. Although these probably sparked my present-day interest in etymology, I sometimes wince when I hear people referencing ridiculous-sounding and blatantly false etymologies. The worst offenders are always false acronyms. The first one I can remember hearing is that “fuck” is an old acronym for “Fornication Under Consent of King,” from way back in the olden times when people were supposedly allowed to copulate only with permission of the king and they’d (again, supposedly) hang a sign on the door to let people know they got the O.K. to F.U.C.K. In reality, this word can be traced from words in many different languages, including Swedish, Norwegian, Scottish, Middle Dutch, and Middle English. All of the root words have relatively sexual meanings, but none of them relate to getting permission from a king even a little bit. Other explanations attest that signs hung outside of prisoners’ jail cells that said “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.”
Another popular misconception is that “golf” stands for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden,” but it really comes from the 15th-century Scottish word “gouf,” which trickled down from Middle Dutch and proto-Germanic words meaning “stick, club, bat.” Probably the worst instance of fake acronym etymology I’ve ever seen has to be a random internet post that said that some men used the word “swag” in the 1960’s as code for “Secretly We Are Gay.” The real origin of the word could not be farther from that, as it is related to the verb “swag,” which means “to move heavily or unsteadily” and derives from the Old Norse word sveggja, “to swing or sway.” These incorrect definitions, however absurd they may sound, make me wonder why people make up such lengthy explanations that have no real basis. There’s not much to gain about spreading a rumor online or by word of mouth that doesn’t have many good or bad affects, except misinforming people about everyday words. People wanting to know the origins of words but not having any real clue as to where they come from probably answers that question. Maybe everybody’s just as curious about etymology as I am, but don’t know where to look. In turn, people make up their own explanations for things they don’t understand. Maybe that’s what life is all about: finding explanations for what we don’t know in life.
By Carotrix Dubs
Acronyms and Folk Etymology
The Journal of American Folklore , Vol. 91, No. 359 (Jan. – Mar., 1978), pp. 582-584
Published by: American Folklore Society
Article Stable URL: http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.hope.edu/stable/539576
“Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed April 04, 2013. http://etymonline.com/.