Folk Etymology Comes to the Suburbs

By Walker, Ruth | The Christian Science Monitor, February 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

Folk Etymology Comes to the Suburbs


Walker, Ruth, The Christian Science Monitor


Quick: Are suburbs within city limits or not?

I was on a walking tour in New York the other day during which our guide asserted that suburb properly refers to a neighborhood away from the center but still within city limits. When residents of areas outside the city style themselves "suburban," he added, they're dodging the fact that they're really "out in the boonies."

I'm a big fan of this particular tour guide. But I could feel some dictionary research coming on.

The results were - inconclusive, alas. Merriam-Webster, for instance, offers "an outlying part of a city or town" as well as "a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city." It's a reminder to be careful about being absolutist in our assertions about what words mean or don't mean.

But as I dug, I did find some other things I didn't realize I was keen to find out. For one thing, suburb, however mid-20th century it sounds, dates from about 1340. And suburb and suburban have some pretty negative vibes attached, at least according to dictionaries. "Suburban sinner" was 17th-century slang for a "loose woman." Shakespeare buffs may recall that in "Measure for Measure," Mistress Overdone's territory is "the suburbs of Vienna."

Faubourg is another word for suburb, borrowed from French. It was originally forsbourc - that which is outside the town. But then that morphed into "faux bourg," - literally "false town," reflecting the idea that suburbs are inauthentic.

People misheard forsbourc as "faux bourg," because that's what it sounded like, and the idea of "false town" made sense to them. And that, in turn, made them think that's where the word came from. This is an example of folk etymology: a word altered to match a wrongheaded idea of its origin.

Cutlet is another example. Obviously, it comes from cutting - you cut up meat until you end up with a little pile of cutlets, right? Well, not quite. Cutlet comes from the French cotelette, a "little rib," a little piece from the side. …

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