NEW YORK FOLKLORE
Vol. 3, Nos. 1-4, 1977
SOME HUMOROUS FOLK-ETYMOLOGICAL NARRATIVES
by W. F. H. Nicolaisen
The late Francis Lee Utley, to whose memory I wish to dedicate
this brief essay, used to delight in telling the folk-etymology of
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which, according to his version, “goes back
to an old poly-philoprogenitive Indian who rushed one day into
the trading post with the remark, damaged by bilingual phonemic
conversion, that ‘she is a boy again’.” They say that the desire for
a son is the father of many daughters, but quite clearly the reverse
is true in the case of this particular father. Be that as it may, this
humorous anecdote may serve as a prototype for the kind of brief
narrative to be examined in this paper, i.e., the reinterpretation of
a meaningless place name through commemorative, and usually
humorous, reference to an occasion on which somebody is
supposed to have made an utterance which, as a whole or in part,
has given rise to the present name.
Folk-etymology is, of course, a well-known force in the development
of any vocabulary, serving the function of reinterpreting
words in order to provide them with new etymologies and
transparent meanings, after their original etymologies have become
obscure and their meanings opaque. Incident names, too, are a
toponymic category encountered not infrequently in local place-nomenclatures,
especially in the primary naming of comparatively
small geographical features. What is unusual, however, and therefore
noteworthy, in the combination of these two principlessecondary
re-interpretation by means of fictitious incidents-is the
realization that the inordinate emphasis placed on events as
sources for name giving in no way reflects the comparatively small
use made of this device, by people on the same folk-cultural level,
in the original naming of places. Primary naming and secondary
reinterpretation are consequently greatly at variance with each
other in this respect, in so far as the former process can be shown
to have a much wider range of stimuli and associations available
than the latter....
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