Thursday, June 12, 2008

Folk Etymology: Gringos and Long Knives

I recently checked out a tape called "Spanish for Gringos." On the cover of the the accompanying workbook was the following:

gringo n, pl gringos [Sp, alternate of griego Greek, stranger, fr Latin Graecus, Greek] (1849); a foreigner in Spain or Latin America, esp. when person is of English or American origin....
(Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

I'm pretty sure the dictionary is right about the word's etymology. But I had learned a more colorful story: that Mexican-American vaqueros came into contact with Irish-American cowboys after the United States acquired first Texas, and then New Mexico and California. The Irish cowboys were constantly singing the song, "Green Grow the Lilacs." The first two words of the song were slurred into gringo.

What I had learned was folk etymology--what Wikipedia calls "A commonly held misunderstanding of the origin of a particular word, a false etymology." Folk etymologies are usually more interesting than the actual word origin. Sometimes folk etymologies can unfairly cast a bad light on some perfectly innocent words, such as picnic, or phrases such as rule of thumb. But for the most part, folk etymologies can be a lot of fun.

One folk etymology (and who knows, maybe it's true), is the story of how American Indians came to call white Americans "Big Knives," or "Long Knives." The term was first applied to Virginians, then to all white Americans. Here's the story: Francis Howard, Fifth Baron Howard of Effingham, and royal governor of Virginia (served 1683-1692) traveled up to New York Colony to treat with the Iroquois tribe. He had brought with him a translator of Dutch origin. In the course of the treaty making, one of the Iroquois wanted to know the meaning of the name Howard. The Dutch translator, thinking of a Dutch word meaning "hanger" (I'm doing this from memory, so I don't remember the exact word), translated it as "big knife." Thus Virginians, and later all white Americans, became Big Knives, or Long Knives.

Most likely, the term came from the swords the Virginians carried. But the mistranslation story is a lot more fun.

8 comments:

SzélsőFa said...

Etymology is interesting. I followed the links you shared and had some interesting read!

Lisa said...

I love these posts. You have done one or two others like this that I've enjoyed too. It always reminds me of finally learning they etymology of the phrase "mind your p's and q's", which my grandmother used frequently. Imagine my surprise to learn where it came from -- although given my family history, it fits :)

steve said...

Szelsofa--Thank you. I may do some more posts on false etymologies--maybe one on false acronyms, such as cop(probably from the Latin capare, to seize, and not from "constable on patrol."
And maybe I'll list some of the many folk etymologies for Hoosier.

Lisa--There seems to be some disagreement over "mind your Ps and Qs." One theory is that it came from printing, where the letters were easy to confuse, especialy since type would appear backwards. The other, more popular, theory, is from taverns, where the bartender needed to keep track of the pints and quarts ordered by the customers. I suspect that's the origin you're referring to.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

Fascinating post, Steve! I prefer picnic to "pot-luck." For some reason, the term pot-luck annoys my ears.

Emperor Ropi said...

People has good fantasy at producing words.

Peter said...

Folk etymology sounds as strong as myth. We explain natural forces with myth; we explain words with folk etymology. Stories seem so real.

I think I have an idea for a board game . . .

Charles Gramlich said...

I know "Hanger" has been used as a word for sword at times.

steve said...

Tea--I agree. In Elkhart, Indiana, we call them carry-in dinners. I've never heard the term anywhere else.

Ropi--There's a lot of fantasy involved, as well as the usual mis-coomunication.

Peter--I can see it as a board game. Do you remember the BBC radio program "My Word," where two of the regulars would have to come up with an expalation for a common phrase?

Charles--Very interesting. Maybe ther's truth to the story. I read it at the Wisconsin State Historical Library while I was doing research on the Black Hawk War. No attribution, as I recall--just a piece of paper with the story on it in a file.