‘Folk etymology’ and ‘contamination’ each involve associative formal influences between words which have no ‘etymological’ (i.e., historical), connexion. From a morphological perspective, in folk etymology a word acquires at least some elements of the structure of some other, historically unrelated, word. The result often looks like a compound, of a word composed of other, independently existing, words. These are usually (but not necessarily) ‘compounds’ lacking in any semantic compositionality, which do not ‘make sense’: for example, French beaupré ‘bowsprit’, but apparently ‘beautiful meadow’, possibly derived from English bowsprit. Typically involved are relatively long, polysyllabic, words, characteristically belonging to erudite or exotic vocabulary, whose unfamiliarity is accommodated by speakers unfamiliar with the target word through replacement of portions of that word with more familiar words. Contamination differs from folk etymology both on the formal and on the semantic side, usually involving non-morphemic elements, and acting between words that are semantically linked: for example, Spanish nuera ‘daughter-in-law’, instead of etymologically expected **nora, apparently influenced by the vowel historically underlying suegra ‘mother-in-law’. While there is nothing uniquely Romance about these phenomena, Romance languages abound in them.
Éva Buchi and Steven N. Dworkin
Etymology is the only linguistic subdiscipline that is uniquely historical in its study of the relevant linguistic data and one of the oldest fields in Romance linguistics. The concept of etymology as practiced by Romanists has changed over the last 100 years. At the outset, Romance etymologists took as their brief the search for and identification of individual word origins. Starting in the early 20th century, various specialists began to view etymology as the preparation of the complete history of all facets of the evolution over time and space of the words or lexical families being studied. Identification of the underlying base was only the first step in the process. From this perspective, etymology constitutes an essential element of diachronic lexicology, which covers all formal, semantic, and syntactic facets of a word’s evolution, including, if appropriate, the circumstances leading to its demise and replacement.