Alcoholic Watergate Hamburgers

I don’t know why I’m writing anything here, my point is so clear from the title.

It’s been mentioned recently in my Linguistics course that the perception of speech by listeners is a strong factor in language change. Sometimes, listeners become aware of the true phrase, and are mocked as in the FedEx commercial: “We get fringe benefits, not French benefits.” Putting myself on the chopping block, I used to think that the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate was the Wanda Fuca plate, and that Prog Rock was Prague Rock. (Rock on Czech Republic!) The other option is that listeners are not corrected, misinterpret the divisions of words, and make new words based off of that assumption. These are 3 examples.

1. Alcohol + ic –> Alco + holic

Alcohol comes from Arabic ‘al-kuhl’ meaning ‘the metallic powder used to color eyelids.’  Now ‘-holic’ is used to mean addict, but never a real medical problem as in chocoholic, workaholic, shopaholic, etc.

2. Watergate –> Water + gate

This productive scandal suffix is mocked in an episode of Flight of the Conchords, when Jemaine assumes that the original debacle was called ‘Watergategate.” No one scandal stands out in my mind using this suffix, as soon as the news cycle moves on the name fades away, but the field is so open that if your friend gets mad that you don’t text her back, it could be called Textgate. I vaguely recall Strippergate and Tigergate, please check out the mind-bogglingly long list on Wikipedia.

3. Hamburg + er –> Ham + burger

Hamburg is a place in Germany where they make meat sandwiches. Burg means city, and Ham kind of means ‘bend in the river’, describing the area of the settlement. Ham as the edible piggy product comes from the same Old English root hamme, meaning ‘knee bend,’ seen in hamstring. It makes sense why it seemed like ham modified burger, instead of -er modifying Hamburg. In any case, cheeseburger, veggieburger, tofuburger, all branch off from this, making -burger a productive affix. It’s fun to reverse engineer the misunderstanding and imagine that vegetarians all come from Tofuburg, or that California boys come from In-N-Outburg.

At some point, poor listening is annoying for people in conversation: “Did you say giraffe?” “No I said draft. Giraffe doesn’t make sense.” Everyone has pet peeves, and mistakes should be avoided in formal situations in order to sound intelligent, but none of these new formations are inherently ‘bad.’ Misunderstanding-by-listener is just another way that new words are formed in English. Prescriptivists may judge their existence, but the fact that they exist at all is kind of wonderful to me, and another reason why the history of words can be so complicated and satisfying, and also why you should hire me to study it.

February 7, 2012

in arabic,english,Etymology,history of language,Words & Origins

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