Monday, October 29, 2007

folk etymology

I picked up a flyer today on computer loans while I was at the bank. It proudly proclaims that "MFCU can even disperse you loan funds directly to the Bookstore." What they meant, of course, is that the bank can disburse the funds to the bookstore. However, considering the much, much higher token frequency of "disperse" as compared to "disburse," it's not hard to understand how the error was made, especially when one takes into account that the unaspirated voiceless p in disperse it virtually indistinguishable from the voiced b in disburse to the average English speaker.

The title of this entry refers to the process by which words change in response to semantic opacity. In other words, a compound containing an unknown word that resembles a known word that fits the context undergoes change so that the phrase makes more sense to speakers. One of the more useful examples Wikipedia offers is "chaise lounge" from "chaise longue," the latter a French phrase which literally means "long chair." To English speakers used to lounging around on these pieces of furniture, it made more sense that this would be called a "chaise lounge." While disperse and disburse have fairly different meanings when taken very narrowly, they are not so different as to prevent some sort of folk etymology from working its magic here. After all, disperse has the sense of giving out or releasing something, and disburse is the act of giving out or releasing money for a specific purpose. That combined with the infrequency of the verb "disburse" in everyday speech will most likely end in tragedy for the latter verb.


riobard said...

Similar in meaning, except that it is spread widely to one specific location. Maybe they throw the money all around the book store.

You ever notice people saying "for all intensive purposes" in stead of "intents and purposes?" Same thing, I think, though the meanings perhaps are a bit more related. Also, I've seen "should of" in stead of "should've." This has a lot to do with simple listening and repeating. Conceiving the meaning of the particulars doesn't necessarily enter into it, it seems.

If people change these words as you have so demonstrated, will the job "bursar" be changed to "persar" or "pursar" (maybe people will think it similar to "purse")?

Ryan Denzer-King said...

I think the "should of" vs. "should have" from "should've" is a prime example of what you're talking about -- misperceiving words based solely on pronunciation, where semantics doesn't enter into it. After all, we do say "should of" in rapid speech, since "should've" does have a little bit of a schwa between the d and v. It makes sense that people would perceive that as "should of" instead of "should have."

As for the bursar/pursar question, I wouldn't be too surprised if that happens at some point in the future, though I think it would be less likely that the disburse/disperse switch since the p in pursar would be aspirated, making much more perceptually distinct from the unaspirated, voiced b in bursar.

Claire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kataikléya said...

the real question, i think, is what does the speaker actually mean. to take up the "should've/should of" debate, for me those two phrases are pronounced identically. i would consider these kinds of errors more as typos than anything; although i do agree that the disburse/disperse thing may be more complex than that.

riobard said...

in most cases, i think that's the problem. there's something going on mentally when you're thinking about a word as a sound rather than it in written form (as a picture of the text). so, editing doesn't seem to come into play so easily.

the nature of a typo, imho, is not an error of the mind, but of motor skills/coordination. you press the wrong keys. it's not cause you suddenly accidentally think "i dno't konw waht tour'e tlakig about." you just are drunk as hell. yes, you DO know what i'm talking about, you silly drunk.

Claire said...

Hi Ryan, This is Claire F., a fellow "linguist" from Pius. I ended up getting a linguistics minor in undergrad but decided I couldn't do much with that in the long term...I'm glad to see that doesn't apply to everyone!

I actually have been thinking about this a lot, as I'm an engineering grad student without many opportunities for expanding my non-technical English vocabulary. Words that I haven't seen or used in a while tend to be replaced with higher frequency words with similar sounds and meanings. For example, I opt for "diminish" over "demean". Overall I'm finding that my spelling skills have significantly fallen off at the same time!