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Folk etymology comes to the suburbs

People mishear words in ways that make sense to them.

By Ruth Walker / February 15, 2008



Quick: Are suburbs within city limits or not?

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I was on a walking tour in New York the other day during which our guide asserted that suburb properly refers to a neighborhood away from the center but still within city limits. When residents of areas outside the city style themselves "suburban," he added, they're dodging the fact that they're really "out in the boonies."

I'm a big fan of this particular tour guide. But I could feel some dictionary research coming on.

The results were – inconclusive, alas. Merriam-Webster, for instance, offers "an outlying part of a city or town" as well as "a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city." It's a reminder to be careful about being absolutist in our assertions about what words mean or don't mean.

But as I dug, I did find some other things I didn't realize I was keen to find out. For one thing, suburb, however mid-20th century it sounds, dates from about 1340. And suburb and suburban have some pretty negative vibes attached, at least according to dictionaries. "Suburban sinner" was 17th-century slang for a "loose woman." Shakespeare buffs may recall that in "Measure for Measure," Mistress Overdone's territory is "the suburbs of Vienna."

Faubourg is another word for suburb, borrowed from French. It was originally forsbourc – that which is outside the town. But then that morphed into "faux bourg," – literally "false town," reflecting the idea that suburbs are inauthentic.

People misheard forsbourc as "faux bourg," because that's what it sounded like, and the idea of "false town" made sense to them. And that, in turn, made them think that's where the word came from. This is an example of folk etymology: a word altered to match a wrongheaded idea of its origin.

Cutlet is another example. Obviously, it comes from cutting – you cut up meat until you end up with a little pile of cutlets, right? Well, not quite. Cutlet comes from the French côtelette, a "little rib," a little piece from the side. It goes back to a Latin word, costa. But English speakers heard "cut" in côtelette. Eventually the spelling changed.

While we're in the butcher shop, let's not forget sirloin, the upper part of the loin. It was earlier written "sur," but the spelling changed in the 17th century, when the idea caught on that the king of England had "knighted" this noble cut of beef. This bit of folklore is "variously told of Henry VIII, James I, and Charles II," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "though only the first is chronologically possible."

These examples illustrate another point: how French- and Latin-derived terms brought in by the Normans made their way into the vocabulary of the ordinary English people after 1066. Words and their meanings are always tied up with the history, politics, and legal systems of a place.

Back to our "suburban" question: Where it is (relatively) easy for a city to annex surrounding communities, "suburbs" will end up within city limits. When the Monitor posted me to Toronto 10 years ago, I set up shop in a part of town that had been, until the month before I signed my lease, not part of Toronto but a separate community, North York.

It was a point I paid close attention to on my house-hunting trip. I knew I would want to put a Toronto dateline on my stories, and I couldn't legitimately if I were writing from somewhere out in the 'burbs. But a (not uncontroversial) "amalgamation" of several adjacent communities had taken effect a couple of weeks before I first arrived in the Big Smoke. (It happened, by the way, a century to the day after the consolidation of the five-borough City of New York.)

Toronto's amalgamation spared me a dateline of "North York, Ontario." Half our readers, I was sure, would have thought "North York" was on the other side of the Bronx, and the other half that "Ontario" was a far-out exurb of Los Angeles.

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