PPFF #145:puffin poo

Good morning,

I learnt something quite cool this week. This is how I came across it.

Someone from the office brought in ‘puffin poo’. Not the actual faecal substance from the birds (not least because that would be in violation of HSE regulations and/or social protocol) but ‘delicious white Belgian chocolate with toasted rice and mallow, hand rolled in coconut’ from Shetlands, whose appearance vaguely resembles animal droppings. To learn more about actual puffin guano, I googled ‘puffin’. One of Google’s suggestions was ‘puffin crossings’. Unwittingly I clicked on that link. Then I found out that ‘puffin’ in ‘puffin crossing’ is a loose acronym for Pedestrian User Friendly INtelligent’ or a ‘backronym’. What’s a ‘backronym’? It’s a specially constructed phrase claimed to be an acronym, which in many cases are contrived to spell an existing word; a ‘type of folk etymology’, Wikipedia said. Now what the heck is ‘folk etymology’? Basically it’s a false origin story of a word that language experts know so little about that laypersons like you and I come up with something that sounds plausible as the origin of a particular word or phrase. A well-known example would be ‘posh’, abbreviated from ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’, originating from the fact that the most expensive cabins on ship would be on the port side going out, and the starboard side when it’s homebound. This is absolute rubbish, of course but it sounds so logical that it ought to be true and if it weren’t true, you want it to be true. Anyhow, after a few more clicks later, my mini click quest came to a satisfying end when I eventually stopped on the page that explained the real origin of the word ‘female’.

Like a lot of words in English, the word ‘female’ came from the French word ‘femelle’, which was a diminutive form of ‘femme’(woman), meaning ‘young woman’ (like madame and mademoiselle). Some centuries later English speakers, unfamiliar with suffix –elle, altered its spelling to ‘female’, to be morphologically in line with the existing word ‘male’, to appear in contrast, sort of like how ‘aluminum’ changed to ‘aluminium’ to appear similar to other existing metallic element names such as potassium etc.

It’s strange but it seems to me that some people have an innate desire to make sense of things that they come across, even if they’re not true, preferring  coherence over facts. Food for thought. 

Have a thoughtful Friday