Folk Etymology: how kitty-corner, bridegroom and penthouse came to be

Not sure how to spell “cat-a-corner” or knowing if it should be “kitty-corner” I embarked on a brief little journey into the history of how words change as roots disappear and become obsolete as pop culture takes over.

Did you know, for instance, that kitty-corner evolved from catty-corner, which evolved from catercorner? Catercorner was a compound word from the now outdated cater, which meant four. Four corners- get it?  (I tried looking up the etymology of cater to no avail, though found a separate obsolete meaning, matching cater with the purveyor of foods.) The word finally makes sense to me, as I rarely see cats scuttling across streets, corner to corner. (They tend to prefer the safety of curbs.)

As it turns out, when the root of a word dies and loses it’s contemporary meaning, people often mistake that root for a different synonym. As such, asparagus became sparrow-grass in Europe. (Who knew that originally took its name from the Person asparag, meaning “sprout” or “shoot”? Fun little run-down on wikipedia.)

After digging around on some folk etymology history, here’s a few of my light favorites:

  • French (e)crevisse  (likely from Germanic krebiz and Old English’s crabba for “crab”, which became our crayfish / crawfish
  • Old English bryd-guma (“bride-man”) became bridegroom after the Old English word guma fell out of use and made the compound semantically obscure.
  • hangnail from agnail (from the Old English, “A corn or sore on the toe or finger.”)
  • penthouse from pentice (“An extension of a building’s roof and the protected area beneath.”)
  • chaise lounge from chaise longue (from the French, meaning “long chair”)
  • slug of liquor from the Irish word slog , meaning to swallow
  • Island gets a little more complicated- you’ll just have to read about it here

1 Comment

  • Zach
    February 23, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    quatre means four in French


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