I’ve come across the Revd A Smythe Palmer's Folk Etymology (first published 1882) which defines itself as a

Dictionary of verbal corruption or word perverted in form or meaning by false derivation or mistaken analogy

It is an interesting reading, but is it reliable? Could it be cited as reference on ELU for instance?

  • It's a published work, kinda old, I've never heard of it but I'm not a folk etymology scholar. Sure, use it for some words and it'll be tested. Are you thinking of any words in particular? – Mitch Jul 3 '19 at 14:15
  • @Mitch - I was checking the etymology of how Pope derived from Papa. – user067531 Jul 3 '19 at 15:09
  • Looking at that entry for 'pope', the author mentions Wycliffe said it came from Latin 'papœ' for 'wonderful'. That, and a direct sounds like a reasonable/reliable mention of history (there's probably some extant anecdote of Wycliffe's about it that others repeated. Again, I don't know anything. Etymonline and OED are usually the most reliable (checkable with documentation and phonological rules). As with any 'authority', use it and corroborate (or give the alternate theories. – Mitch Jul 3 '19 at 16:59

I find Smythe Palmer’s dictionary almost impossible to use, in part because he presents the argument for a folk etymology in a deadpan way and only occasionally points out a fundamental flaw in that argument. Consider his dictionary’s entry for “blancmanger”:

BLANCMANGER : the latter part of this word is said to have no connexion with manger, to eat. The old spelling was blanc-mangier, and blanc-mengier, a corruption of ma-en-sire, i.e. “fowl-in-syrup,” which is the chief ingredient of the dish in old recipes, Its other names—Blanc Desire (i.e. de sire, “of syrup”), Blanc desorre, Blanc de sorry, Blanc de Surry—are of similar origin.—Kettner, Book of the Table, pp. 211–218. But where is this ma(?)-en-sire to be found?

The problem for a reader is how to tell (1) where the entry’s content (prior to the question at the end) comes from and (2) whether any of it is valid in any way. Is Kettner responsible for everything before the final question? Is anything in the first part of the entry valid? For example, is it true that the old spelling was blanc-mangier? Was “fowl-in-syrup” the chief ingredient of blancmange “in old recipes”? Are “Blanc Desire,” “Blanc de Surry,” etc., really old alternative names for blancmange?

Etymology Online offers this entry:

blancmange (n.) "jelly-like preparation in cookery," late 14c., from Old French blancmengier (13c.), literally "white eating," originally a dish of fowl minced with cream, rice, almonds, sugar, eggs, etc.; from blanc "white" (also used in Old French of white foods, such as eggs, cream, also white meats such as veal and chicken; see blank (adj.)) + mangier "to eat" (see manger). Attempts were made nativize it (Chaucer has blankemangere); French pronunciation is evident in 18c. variant blomange, and "the present spelling is a half attempt at restoring the French" [OED].

So Smythe Palmer’s observation that “the latter part of this word is said to have no connexion with manger, to eat” simply reports some unnamed person’s erroneous understanding of the word’s etymology, but the subsequent claim about the spelling blanc-mangier seems to be accurate, but the claim that blanc-mangier is itself a corruption of ma-en-sire appears to be bogus, and the remarks about “Blanc Desire” and related forms are therefore (presumably) unfounded. And we still don’t know how much of this folk etymology argument is the work of Kettner.

Ultimately, Smythe Palmer’s treatment of blancmange is not very helpful because it mixes accurate details with inaccurate ones, without specifying which are which, and because he doesn’t clearly identify the source of each etymological claim made in the body of the entry. These problems arise over and over again in his dictionary. I doubt that I've cited it more than once or twice in my many etymology-related answers at EL&U.

  • Yes, I also noticed that difficulty of figuring out what was folk and what accepted. But once separated, what is your assessment of its reliability (truthfulness)? – Mitch Jul 3 '19 at 19:09
  • I think that it is inaccurate to call the claimed derivation of blancmange from ma-en-sire an instance of "folk etymology" at all. Attempts by armchair linguists to find antecedents for English words in vaguely similar-looking (or -sounding) words from other languages might better be called "speculative etymology" than "folk etymology," since those individuals, not everyday folk, are responsible for the erroneous connections. I doubt that Smythe Palmer made up any of the etymologies that he attributes to others in his dictionary, so in that respect his work is probably truthful. ... – Sven Yargs Jul 3 '19 at 21:22
  • ... But many of the derivations seem to lack any actual folk—that is, popular-culture—component, and that (in my opinion) renders their historical importance negligible. I would expect a dictionary that focused on instances of actual folk etymology to highlight words like bankshall (from Malay bangsal), furbelow (from French farbella), lutestring, (from Italian lustrino), and wheatear (from English white arse), not to expound a fanciful exegesis of “fowl-in-syrup” as an alternative explanation for blancmange. ... – Sven Yargs Jul 3 '19 at 21:22
  • ... Smythe Palmer does include entries for furbelow, lutestring, and wheatear, but he traces furbelow to French falbala rather than to French farbella, lutestring to French lustrine rather than to Italian lustrino, and wheat-ear to Anglo-Saxon hvit + ears (the latter meaning "tail or rump"). So on technical details, the dictionary seems a bit unreliable. Worse, most of its entries offer etymological conjectures by amateur linguists, not analyses of real-world folk etymologies by professional linguists. But that's just my impression—and I'm not even an amateur linguist. – Sven Yargs Jul 3 '19 at 21:22
  • It could be that at that time, 'folk-etymology' meant how he used it, rather than how we use it today. – Mitch Jul 3 '19 at 21:27
  • @Mitch: Now that is a question I would be interested in researching: "What did the term 'folk-etymology mean' in 1882, what does it mean today, and why did the meaning change (if it did)?" Smythe Palmer offers this interpretation of "folk-etymology" in the subtitle to his book: "A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy." He seems not to care very much whether the source of the perverting, false deriving, or mistaken analogizing was common parlance or a wannabe philologist. For him, at least, the perversion's the thing. – Sven Yargs Jul 3 '19 at 21:52
  • ...On the other hand, the opening paragraph of his introduction breaks a little differently: "By Folk-etymology is meant the influence exercised upon words, both as to their form and meaning, by the popular use and misuse of them. In a special sense, it is intended to denote the corruption which words undergo, owing either to false ideas about their derivation, or to a mistaken analogy with other words to which they are supposed to be related." Here he treats "popular use or misuse" of words as an essential component of what he later calls the "verbal pathology" of such errors. – Sven Yargs Jul 3 '19 at 22:02

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