This time, a special post about what folk etymology is or why you can’t do without any linguistics/science.

The story begins when I had just begun my journey into the Japanese language. I was taking a look at some kanji, to get used to them and to practice drawing them. I came across a curious word: “namamekashi.”

This word was too long to be coincidence. There had to be some meaning to it. So with my limited knowledge of Japanese (words,) I predicted that “-kashi” would just be your typical adjective ending. With the morphological (“conjugation”) part explained, that would place the semantic (“meaning”) part on “namame.”

And I further predicted: “namame”=生(nama)+女(me)=”raw”,”fresh”,”crude”+”woman”=”raw woman”=”a woman without any furnishing”=”naked woman” and as an instance of what is “attractive”, the word itself became to mean that. Oh Japanese. I thought.

I thought. I did think. But not hard enough. While “shi” is a typical adjective ending and 気(ge) was also used often to turn words into adjectives, I didn’t really have much to base my hypothesis upon. Now just recently, this word came to my mind and I seized the opportunity to take a closer look at it. As you might have guessed by now, turns out I was wrong. Not completely, but mostly.

The truth is, it has nothing to do with “me”(woman) whatsoever. For once,  the adjective “namamekashi” is derived from the verb “namameku”. And this verb itself consists of 生(nama)+めく(meku). Well, at least I was right about the “nama” part. Now, “meku” is a versatile “helper” verb that is attached to many words and roughly means “have an air of”, “seem to be.”

Thus, the original meaning of “namameku” was “behave unrefined.” or “behave without paying much attention to one’s surroundings.” Over time, this got reinterpreted as a good thing as in “behave modest” (ie < “don’t try to pay attention to the surrounding [persons]”), “restrained”, “graceful.” From there, it’s a small step to “entice” or “seduce.”

And what do we learn from all this?

When people take a look at some random word and try to interpret something into it that isn’t there, just because they think it would either “sound good” or “conform to their beliefs”, this often results what is also known by the name “folk etymology.” Prominent examples of folk etymology include: “female”, from Old French femelle, diminutive of femme “woman and had nothing to do with “male” until some people thought it had. Or cockroach, from Spanish cucaracha, which has nothing to do with roaches.

The explanations they give rise to may themselves be worth studying, but please be cautious, beware and consult a dictionary.t

PS: Yes, I did randomly decide to use the 終止形 in the heading.
PPS: And yes, I’m aware the above note is even more random and most people won’t even understand it.

PPPS: Out of curiosity, who here does know about what a 終止形 is?