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There’s an urban legend that the word kangaroo is from an Aboriginal phrase that means, “I don’t know.” This is not true: the word is actually from a Guugu Yimithirr word for a particular species of kangaroo, gangurru.

But are there any known cases of this kind of thing really happening? That is, a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of another language leading to a term being borrowed for something even though it has a totally different meaning in the source language.

My guess is that well-documented cases are likely rare, because either,

  • the exact etymology would be hard to track if it’s based on true mistakes, or
  • the mistake would have been corrected if found to be wrong.

If I want to search for this phenomenon in literature, what would be the best terminology to look for?

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  • if they are very rare, they are indeed lonewords :)
    – Alazon
    Nov 23, 2023 at 20:42
  • 1
    Check the stories of why the Slavic languages' word for ‘elephant’ is actually a borrowing from the Turkic word for ‘lion’ and why the Slavic word for ‘camel’ is actually a borrowing from the Gothic word for ‘elephant’.
    – Yellow Sky
    Nov 23, 2023 at 21:48
  • What terminology to look for?
    – Lambie
    Nov 25, 2023 at 1:00
  • There are endless loans where we know the meaning has shifted. It's harder to know if it shifted from the very beginning or just soon after. Nov 26, 2023 at 20:55

2 Answers 2

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In French, the name for a certain type of window is le vasistas, almost certainly from German was ist das? ("what is that?"), inquiring about that particular type of window (which is far more common in France than in Germany).

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    Not only is this folk (though I have no better etymology the uncertainty of fenetre "window" stands to reason, and L. viso "I see" is most likely the root), but it is told wrong. Following one comment on r/etymology, "Was ist das" would be the inquiry heard from a tenant looking through a small window above the door, "What is it?".
    – vectory
    Nov 25, 2023 at 17:46
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    @vectory I have no idea what you mean by “the uncertainty stands to reason”; did a word get lost? Nov 25, 2023 at 18:44
  • I am not a hundred percent familiar with the language spoken by Sgt. "Nobby" Nobbs but I believe that “stands to reason” is a simple Positive Polarity Item. The uncertainty of fenetre yes. Okay, that sounds stupid.
    – vectory
    Nov 25, 2023 at 19:53
  • @vectory If transom windows are more common in France than in Germany, why would it be named after the German expression?
    – Draconis
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:30
  • Perhaps Lothringen for one has a history of different affiliations, so France vs Germany is a red herring.
    – vectory
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:35
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But are there any known cases of this kind of thing really happening?

"this thing" is far too broad. The general idea is Folk Etymology. The word itself is a neat example.

Folk or German Volk (Volksetymology) have different connotations. The coinage of Volksetymology is often credited to Förstemann (Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung auf dem Gebiete der Indogermanischen Sprachen, 1852). French etymologie populaire appears some time later, possibly mediated by English. Wiktionary credits folk etymology to Smythe Palmer (1882) in turn "from a calque of German Volksetymologie (1820s, in 1821 as Volks-Etymologie in J. A. Schmeller's Die Mundarten Bayerns grammatisch dargestellt)".

Förstemann, clearly reinventing the wheel, defines Volksetymologie as a form of corruption, e.g. woodchuck for Cree ocêk, otchek, and was lauded for summarizing a slew of similar concepts. He pitted Volk "the people" against the learned (“gelehrte”) and the scholarly (“wissenschaftlich”). I am not sure what Schmeller said.

Anyhow, Englisch folk has on the other hand a connotation of tradition, e.g. folk story, tale, not unlike Ger. Volksmärchen. In particular, Volksweisheit may be translated variously as "folk wisdom" (dict.cc) or "wisdom of the crowds" (common knowledge? majority opinion?) but “saying, idiom, aphorism, maxim" (collins: Spruch) is closer to the truth (“[…] im Volke überlieferte Sentenz”, Wörterbuch der Deutschen Gegenwartssprache: Volksweisheit).

Meanwhile, Wiktionary has folk etymology "also known as (generative) popular etymology, analogical reformation, (morphological) reanalysis and etymological reinterpretation" and distinguishes it from false etymology "or pseudo-etymology". Rebracketing, mondegreen, egghorn and more have separate entries, which makes for a confusing situation. Ex falso quodlibet. The folk element remains important because any legend has a kernel of truth which distinguishes it from false etymology.


As for kangaroo etymology or, there are many stories of one language's "What? I don't know" being handled as pseudo-etymology in another language's lexicon.

Hypothesis:

the mistake would have been corrected if found to be wrong.—OP

This is very likely true in the trivial case.

However, it is at least possible that kangaroo became reanalyzed as something like "false" as in kangaroo court and eventually repurposed for etymology. The etymology of kangaroo court remains obscure, anyway.


Examples of mistranslations taking root so as to be true etymology will be left as exercise to the reader until further notice.

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