Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Cabin fever (and artichokes). What kind of cabin is that? Folk etymology (3/3)


Just to recap on the last couple of blogs, we’ve been talking about ‘folk etytmology’ in both its meanings: a) a story people tell about where a word comes from (e.g. posh = ‘port out starboard home’) or, as the online Oxford dictionary puts it, b)

‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.’

(In this context, ‘popular’ should be interpreted as ‘of an idea, believed by many people’ rather than as ‘liked by large numbers of people.’)

I wonder if you’ve ever indulged in a bit of folk etymology. I know I have. Cabin fever: interpreting it as the longing to escape from confinement or cramped quarters, I related it to ships’ cabins. The story I told myself was that in the long voyages to India from Britain people must have become extremely frustrated at having only their cabin as a private space.

Baloney! (A word that is itself, probably, a folk etymology.) In fact, the cabins in question are of the log persuasion, the kind in which people might find themselves cooped up over the US or Canadian winter.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

The OED defines cabin fever as ‘lassitude, restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness resulting from being confined for too long with few or no companions’, which covers a multitude of scenarios.

The word first appears in a novel called…Cabin Fever: A novel, penned by one ‘Bertha Muzzy Bower’

The mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls ‘cabin fever’.

Meaning b) above [‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage’] has two aspects: ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’.

(Of course, foreign words are initially unfamiliar precisely because of their foreignness, but ‘native’ English words can be unfamiliar too, as e.g. deserts with the second syllable stressed in just deserts, which then becomes just desserts.)

This process of folk etymology has resulted in the transformation over decades or even centuries of a small number of not uncommon words that we use unblinkingly. Loanwords are–or were–prone to undergo this process, as the next example illustrates:

(globe) artichoke: (Cynara scolymus) English borrowed this from the Italian articiocco (which was a borrowing from Spanish alcachofa, which was a borrowing from Arabic al-ḵaršūfa…). On its first appearance in English, it was already being reshaped, as you can see from the quotation below.

1531 MS. Acc. Bk. in Notes & Queries 2 Feb. (1884) 85/2

Bringing Archecokks to the Kings Grace.

What follows are a few choice quotations, showing the vagaries of its spelling, leading up to its first appearance in its current spelling, in 1727, i.e. almost two centuries after first landing on these shores.

1542 A. Borde Compend. Regyment Helth xx. sig. K.i

There is nothynge vsed to be eaten of Artochockes but ye hed of them.

1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry ii. f. 63

The Hartichoch…is a kinde of Thistel, by the diligence of the Gardner, brought to be a good Garden hearbe.

1727 Swift Pastoral Dialogue Richmond-Lodge in Wks. (1735) II. 375

The Dean…Shall…steal my Artichokes no more.

The OED comments sagely on parallels with English that might have driven such changes:

‘Similarly, many of the English forms reflect reanalysis of the word by folk etymology. Forms with initial hart– are apparently influenced by association with heart, while the second element was apparently reanalysed as choke n.1 or choke v. from an early date. This has been variously explained as resulting from the belief that the flower contained an inedible centre which would choke anyone attempting to eat it (compare choke n.1 5), or resulting from the plant’s rapid growth which would quickly ‘choke’ anything else growing nearby (compare e.g. quot. 1641 at sense 2).’

The OED extract above mentions the stories which, from the original Archecokks, developed the cultivar artichoke: that you could choke on the centre of the plant, or that it would choke out other plants.

Artichok-- '...a kind of thistel...' and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Artichok– ‘…a kind of thistel…’ and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Another vegetable shares the name but is unrelated botanically: the Jerusalem artichoke. The ‘Jerusalem’ part is another example of folk etymology at work: it is an anglicisation of girasole, the Italian word for ‘sunflower’, which is the genus to which the Jerusalem artichoke belongs.

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I’ve blogged elsewhere about how cockroach and alligator, originally from Spanish, morphed from cucaracha and el lagarto respectively.

Here are some other folk etymologies, with hyperlinks to their definitions, of some well-known examples of loanwords adopting an English-friendly guise because of assumptions speakers made about them: belfry (nowt to do with bells, originally); blunderbuss, crayfish (nowt to do with fishy-wishies, originally), salt cellar (diddly-squat to do with the place you store your vintage Bordeaux).

My second bit of folk-etymologising concerns Benidorm, in Spain: SELF-EVIDENTLY, it is related somehow to the Spanish dormir for ‘sleep’, and bien for ‘well’, meaning you would sleep well there.

Complete tosh, of course; the origin of the name is Arabic.

What’s your folk etymology?

I’m not sure when I first ate artichoke, but it must have been in a French or French-inspired restaurant, because it was done in the traditional, dining etiquette-testing way. Fortunately, I must have been with someone who helped me avoid making a fox’s paw. The whole flower head is presented to you, vaguely in the manner of St John the Baptist’s head, on its own plate, with the individual scales or petals adroitly loosened through cooking. It then becomes a supreme test of your table manners to detach them one by one, delicately suck the flesh off each, and gracefully discard each armadillo-like scale, until you reach your culinary El Dorado, the heart.


If you fancy trying them at home–I can’t say I ever have–here’s a Delia.


Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on “Cabin fever (and artichokes). What kind of cabin is that? Folk etymology (3/3)

  1. Dear Mr Butterfield,

    Thank you for your highly entertaining and admirably researched blogs. I thought of you last week when I was visiting HMS Victory in Portsmouth. A guide was enthusiastically explaining that a lot English expressions originated with the Navy – i.e., cat o’nine tails being the source of “letting the cat out of the bag” and “no room to swing a cat” and he also described the crews’ ablution facilities. Obviously Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy had the luxury of wooden seated water closets in their cabins but the rest of the crew had to go the head, or front of the ship, to relieve themselves.

    He then said that as they had no luxurious puppy-soft triple velvet toilet paper they used a piece of cloth tied to a rope and towed behind the ship and that was the origin of the expression Tow rag. I asked him if he spelt it Toe or Tow but he couldn’t spell so I didn’t find out. I’m sure everyone says Toe – are they wrong?

    Have you any ideas?

    With kind regards,

    Alicia Helman


    • Dear Ms Helman,

      Thanks for your complimentary remarks about my blog, and for your question. Guides to historic sites perform an invaluable task in helping people enjoy their visit. (I was for a while a volunteer guide at an NT property, you know, one of those intimidating people that leap out at you and fill you with more facts than you can shake a stick at.) Unfortunately, in their quest to sex up their stories, they perpetuate some rather stale, not to say rancid, folk etymologies. Such is the case with ‘swing a cat’, to a debunking of which I’ve attached a link.

      As for toe-rag, spelt thus, it is merely a combination of … toe and rag.

      Here are the OED definition and examples for the literal meaning:

      1. A rag wrapped round the foot and worn inside a shoe, in place of a sock.

      1864 J. F. Mortlock Experiences of Convict ii. ix. 80 Stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a ‘toe-rag’.
      1932 F. Jennings Tramping with Tramps vi. 98 Socks are very seldom worn. Instead you get a winding of cotton rag round the ball and toes of the foot as a safeguard against blisters. Toe-rags, the tramp calls them.
      1933 ‘G. Orwell’ Down & Out xxvii. 197 Less than half the tramps actually bathed.., but they all washed their faces and feet, and the horrid greasy little clouts known as toe-rags which they bind round their toes.

      And here they are for the insult applied to a person. The last one is interesting, as reflecting your guide’s understanding of the spelling.

      2. A tramp or vagrant; a despicable or worthless person. Also attrib.

      1875 T. Frost Circus Life xvi. 278 Toe rags is another expression of contempt..used..chiefly by the lower grades of circus men, and the acrobats who stroll about the country, performing at fairs.
      1903 ‘T. Collins’ Such is Life v. 182 ‘Come over to the wagon, and have a drink of tea,’ says I. ‘No, no,’ says he; ‘none of your toe-rag business.’
      1912 D. H. Lawrence Let. (1962) I. 154 Remember, whatever toe-rag I may be personally, I am the person she livanted with. So you be careful.
      1960 H. Pinter Caretaker i. 9 All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs.
      1971 ‘H. Calvin’ Poison Chasers xii. 168 Move, ya useless big toerag!
      1978 M. Kenyon Deep Pocket xiii. 165 Could she have loved this toe-rag sheikh out of the desert?
      1980 J. Wainwright Tainted Man 171 The Law doesn’t differentiate between you and the most miserable towrag [sic] on the face of the earth.


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