Mongooses or Mongeese? A tale of folk etymology

One morning on our safari in the Kruger National Park, our camp was raided by a pack of banded mongoose. I managed to snap the cheeky little blighters just before they tucked into the remains of our breakfast.

Mongoose raid

This then lead to a discussion with our fellow campers about whether the plural of mongoose was mongooses or mongeese. There was no WiFi out in the wilds of South Africa so we were dependent on the shoddy organic material known as our brains. Nobody knew.

It turns out that this is a case of folk etymology. Folk etymology is when people encounter a word in a foreign language and they assume it has the same roots as a word in their own language, based on the sound. One classic example is cockroach, which comes from Spanish cucaracha. English speakers assumed that the -racha was equivalent to the English roach and so a new word was born.

Mongoose is another example. The animal was originally called a mungus in the Indian language Marathi. English speakers misheard this as mongoose and so it was that this range of several different species got their name. Thus the plural is mongooses. Here is a little pack of dwarf mongooses enjoying not being devoured by a random predator:

Dwarf mongooses

Folk etymology is lots of fun. It feels like there should be a book about it, looking at how words move across languages. One of my favourites here in Spain is “¡orsay!” This is what the crowd scream in a football game when a player is offside, and is clearly a mishearing of the English word. It is now a real Spanish word and you can find it in the dictionary.

I wonder what other examples of folk etymology there are out there?

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5 responses to “Mongooses or Mongeese? A tale of folk etymology

  1. That was a really interesting post, amigo! I remember the lariat knot used by cowboys. It came from Spanish “la reata”, the rope.

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