How's That Again?

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When etymologists explore words, they chase down true meanings and origins. Sometimes they run into folk or "spook" etymology, the popular and familiar usage that's overtaken the original word. A one-horse carriage was called a "carryall," after the French "carriole." Asparagus became "sparrow-grass" to some, because it made more sense than the Latin original.

Here are more words that have been adapted over time. (Source: "Webster's Word Histories," Merriam-Webster, 1989).

On the trail of 'buckaroo'

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When English speakers borrow a word from another language, they may change the word's pronunciation to fit our system of sound and meaning. This is how "buckaroo" came to be. It is derived from the Spanish "vaquero," cowboy. But the Spanish sound for "v" is "b." It sounded like "buck," as in "bucking bronco." And so "buckaroo" (cowboy) was born.

From battle to bell tower

A church belfry was not named for the bells within but rather for a medieval instrument of war. A "berfrey" was a moveable, wooden tower used to advance an army so that missiles and torches could be hurled upon a walled city. The towers on wheels were abandoned by the 1400s, when gunpowder was in wide use. They were hauled within city walls to serve as watchtowers. Watchmen equipped them with bells so they could alert the citizenry. Soon, a "berfrey" was a "belfry," with a bell.

'Female' to 'male': no relation

According to etymologists, the word "female" is not derived from or even remotely related to "male," despite the spelling resemblance. "Female" derives from Latin "femella"; "male" is from Latin "mars." In early English the word for "young woman" appeared as "femel" and finally "femal" ("al" was a common adjective suffix). The similarity between the words "male" and "femal" was so strong that "female" developed and prevailed.

Italian-Israeli artichokes

It neither comes from Jerusalem nor is it an artichoke. This starchy underground tuber was called "sunflower artichoke" by northern Italians because it looks like a sunflower. To English speakers, its Italian "girasole articiocco" ("sun circle artichoke") sounded like "Jerusalem artichoke."

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