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Stomping Ground (Folk Etymology)

All languages tend to develop in a certain direction, which can be characterized by the technical term diagrammaticity, denoting a closer fit between form and meaning, or more accurately, between sets of forms and sets of meanings, since a diagram (in Peirce’s semeiotic) is an icon of relation. When a word or phrase seems to go against this principle, a change may occur––first in popular speech, then gradually in most if not all styles––that reflects a reinterpretation of the unrecognizable or ill-suited elements of the word or phrase in question. This process is instantiated in what goes by the name folk etymology (a calque [loan translation] of the German Volksetymologie). For example, the modern word bridegroom is the result of folk etymology: in Old English it was brydguma ‘bride-man’, but when the Old English word guma ‘man’ (cognate with Latin homo) fell out of use, the latter was reinterpreted as groom. Here is a description of the process from the OED:

Etymology: α. Old English brýdguma, < brýd, bride n. + guma ‘man’ (poetic) < *Old Germanic gumon-, cognate with Latin homin-. The compound was Common Germanic: compare Old Saxon brûdigomo (Middle Dutch brûdegome, Dutch bruidegom), Old High German brûtigomo (Middle High German briutegome, German bräutigam), Old Norse brûðgumi (Swedish brudgumme, Danish brudgom) < Old Germanic *brúđigumon-; not preserved in Gothic, which has brûþfaþs = ‘bride’s lord’. β. After gome n. became obsolete in Middle English, the place of bridegome was taken in 16th cent. by bridegrome, < grome, groom n. ‘lad’.

The contemporary American phrase stomping ground, in the meaning of ‘a place where one habitually spends/spent much of one’s time’ is the product of folk etymology in two respects. First, the form of the verb, viz. stomp, is an American dialectal version of the English stamp, which has replaced the original in most meanings. Second, the original meaning of stamping ground(s) referred to a place where animals (esp. cattle) habitually gathered, as in this example from the OED: “1862 Harper’s Mag. June 34/1, I found myself near one of these ‘stamping grounds’, and a simultaneous roar from five hundred infuriated animals gave notice of my danger.” A dwindling minority of speakers of American English still preserve the original form of the phrase, but its complete replacement by the newer one is inevitable.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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