Etymological missing link
April 19, 2017 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I learned today that at some point before their extinction, Great Auks were commonly known as penguins. Europeans traveling near the edges of the Southern hemisphere saw birds that reminded them of auks, so they called them penguins. Then Great Auks became extinct, and the only penguins left were the birds that had been given that name based on a misunderstanding. Is there a term for this linguistic phenomenon, where a link in an etymological chain has ceased to exist? Are there other common examples?
posted by layceepee to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is an interesting thought! Something similar in design is (one of the definitions of) skeumorph, namely, a design that still has elements of something that was present in the original, despite it no longer being present in the current version. Floppy disk icons, for 'save', e.g.

I'll try to think of language examples.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:47 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]

Hrm, I thought I'd remembered that Aurochs and Oxen were such a case, but Wikipedia doesn't back that up. (I did learn that the original European Bison hybrid is officially the "Higgs Bison," which is a funny coincidence).
posted by aspersioncast at 2:11 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]

There's a similar example (but not quite the same) where Polynesians arriving in then-uninhabited New Zealand saw birds that looked to them like giant chickens, so they called them "moa", which was the general word for chicken. Then later the moa became extinct, and now NZers only associate the word with this giant almost mythical bird, so they get pretty surprised if they travel to the Cook Islands or somewhere and find moa on the menu.
posted by lollusc at 5:21 PM on April 19

Well, it has quite ceased to exist, but in horse-drawn carriages a board was placed between between the riders and the horses in order to keep mud and dirt from the horses' hooves from being projected up onto the occupants. That was called a dashboard. "Dash" here has carried the third meaning listed on
to splash, often violently; bespatter (with water, mud, etc.):
He recovered consciousness when they dashed water in his face.
We retained that name "dashboard" for the area in front of the driver and passenger in a car, even though it isn't a board and it isn't really intended to keep things from being dashed upon us. And since we added all kinds of instruments and gauges to the dashboard, now that word also carries the meaning of a webpage or computer interface where various information is visually conveyed--even further removed from its original meaning as a kind of mudguard. There are many people who see car and computer dashboard every day but have never actually had a wooden board placed in front of them to keep horses from dashing mud upon them.

I'm sure there are many other examples of advancing technology where we retain an earlier word even though its literal referent is gone, or nearly so. No one literally dials a phone, or rewinds a streaming movie, and so forth.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:34 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]

I think the scenario has happened many times with diseases, especially ones that were named and important before the Germ Theory of Disease. Two examples are:

Plague: I believe that the current thinking is the contemporary disease of that name is different from the medieval plague of Europe.

Leprosy: The contemporary disease, properly called Hanson's Disease, is thought to be different from the Biblical leprosy of the 1st century Middle East.

Of course, I immediately thought of the American Buffalo/Bison, but the meme is backward and the bison were saved from extinction. And also, the Dodo, originally an extinct bird of Mauritius and now some people failing math class.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:49 AM on April 20

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