If you pick up a baby name book while browsing the shelves of a charity shop, you are likely to come across slapdash etymological work. Whether it’s claiming that Claudia comes not from claudus (‘lame’) but from clausura (‘closure’), or confusing the etymologies of Helen and Eleanor, these books sell names to prospective parents – they don’t want to offend their clientele, so they favour adulation over accuracy. But false and folk etymologies of names have proliferated in Europe for over a millennium. This article aims to explain why this happens.
There is a subtle difference between folk etymology and false etymology. Folk etymology refers to the process by which speakers of a language reanalyse or reinterpret a word or phrase, often based on its sound or spelling, to create a new meaning that is more familiar or understandable to them.
An example is the confusion between the names Amelia and Emily. Neither Amelia nor Emily were common in the English-speaking world until the House of Hanover ascended the British throne in the 18th century. Emily, however, would have been a familiar name – the Canterbury Tales were widely read, and in the Knight’s Tale two cousins compete for the hand of a maiden named Emily/Emelye. Thus, the Princess Amelia Sophia (1711-1786) was referred to as the recognisable Emily, even though Amelia is an unrelated name: a reinterpretation facilitated by the similarity of the name Emily to the word ‘ameliorate’.
False etymology, on the other hand, refers to the creation or propagation of an incorrect explanation for the origin of a word or phrase. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including a misunderstanding of the original meaning, a deliberate attempt to create a fanciful story, or a mistaken association with another word or language.
One example is the modern name Nevaeh, invented in 2000 by American Christian metal singer Sonny Sandoval for his daughter. It is simply the word ‘heaven’ spelt backwards and did not appear on US popularity lists until 2001. Soon, however, baby name books appeared claiming that it meant ‘butterfly’ in an unspecified Native American language, ‘intention’ in Arabic, or ‘miracle’ in Hebrew – blatantly false statements whose veracity could be disproved by opening a dictionary or conducting a quick Google search.
Martyr Saints and Misleading Etymologies
Folk and false etymologies were particularly prevalent in the medieval Christian world. Martyr saints were presented as emblematic and aspirational, and their names came to be associated – sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently – with diction related to Christianity. This was particularly true of female saints.
Saint Agnes of Rome
One of these is Agnes of Rome, whose name is a Latinisation of the Greek Ἁγνή (Hagne), which in turn is derived from ἁγνός (hagnos), meaning ‘chaste’ – and indeed she is the patron saint of chastity. But because of the name’s similarity to the Latin agnus, meaning ‘lamb’, Agnes became associated with lambs, and since the 16th century the Pope has blessed two lambs on her feast day (21 January). There is no mention of lambs in any of the contemporary accounts of Agnes – the association is entirely due to mistaken or deliberately altered etymology.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria
The etymology of the name of the legendary Catherine of Alexandria is uncertain. Scholars disagree as to whether it derives from ἑκάτερος (hekateros), meaning ‘each of the two’, αἰκία (aikia), meaning ‘torture’, or from the name of the Greek goddess of witchcraft, Ἑκάτη (Hekate), which in turn could be derived from ἑκάς (hekas), meaning ‘far away’. However, early Christian writers changed the spelling of her name from κατερίνα (Katerina) to καθαρινά (Katharina) because of its association with the word καθαρός (katharos), meaning ‘pure’.
The proliferation of these false etymologies can be attributed to several factors. While many early Christian hagiographies – biographies of historical and legendary saints – were highly educated, with an exemplary grasp of both Latin and Greek, most of their audience was not, and would instead rely on malleable oral tradition. Furthermore, scribal errors and translations of languages could lead to unintentional changes in spelling, many of which subconsciously mimicked the words a scribe was familiar with. Lastly, the association of a saint’s name with a particular meaning or attribute was often seen as a way to enhance their religious significance. By linking a saint’s name to a particular quality, such as purity or humility, their reputation as a holy figure could be further solidified.
In conclusion, the proliferation of false and folk etymologies in Europe for over a millennium can be attributed to several factors such as the reanalysis or reinterpretation of a word or phrase, confusion between names, and the creation or propagation of an incorrect explanation for the origin of a word or phrase. This phenomenon was particularly prevalent in the medieval Christian world, where martyr saints were presented as emblematic and aspirational. The association of a saint’s name with a particular meaning or attribute was often seen as a way to enhance their religious significance, resulting in misleading etymologies. This article highlights the importance of accuracy in etymology, and the need to distinguish between genuine and fabricated etymological origins.
False and folk etymologies are hardly a new phenomenon – from fourth-century theologians to twenty-first-century baby name book authors, the meanings and roots of names have been distorted, whether by accident or design. For scholars of onomastics (the study of the origin and history of proper names), these transfigurations are of great interest, but they often obscure the importance of accuracy in etymology and make it more difficult to distinguish between genuine and invented etymological origins. Etymology may be the science of the history of words, but false and folk etymologies show that it can also be the art of creative storytelling – if you want to learn more about the former, reliable sources include Behind the Name, a constantly expanding database which currently offers reputable information on over twenty-five thousand given names, “The Great Big Book of Baby Names” by Cleveland Kent Evans, and – for etymology more broadly, rather than just that of given names – the Oxford English Dictionary.