I was too busy to do one last week, so I decided to just do a short etymology corner tonight. It accidentally turned out really long because I learned a Spanish word. Anyway, let’s talk about Gatorade!
Gatorade was invented by scientists at the University of Florida as a sports drink for athletes. Since the team was the Florida Gators, the folks named it Gator-Aid, eventually changing the name to Gatorade because 1) there wasn’t any scientific proof that it was helping so they didn’t want to explicitly say it aided anyone and 2) lemonade. It’s like lemonade, but instead of lemons you squeeze out some alligators and add sugar water. Gross!
Alligator is a fascinating word because it is an example of one of my favorite linguistic phenomenons: rebracketing. See, when people, especially people with no background in linguistics, try to figure out where words come from, they practice what is called folk etymology. This can result in all sorts of crazy misadventures and weird myths and sometimes those myths even influence the language itself. Rebracketing happens when you hear or read a set of words or a compound word and get the parts wrong. One great example is helicopter. Common folk wisdom is that the morphemes involved are heli- and -copter, to the extent that we have helipads and dogcopters and even sometimes call them choppers. In reality, the roots are Greek helix (like a spiral, all praise be to the helix) and pteron (meaning a wing, like in pterodactyl), so the actual joint is at helico-pter.
The most common example, however, is in the articles we use all the time. “A” and “an” precede basically every noun and sort of run together in a sentence, whether the letters are written too closely together or the mouth just slurs words. One truth of linguistics, especially English where we have dropped extraneous things like gendering all our words, is that everything trends toward laziness. So if I have a snake and my word for it is naddre, saying “a naddre” enough times turns into “an adder” . A napron, sharing a root with the word napkin, soon turns into an apron. Numbles made from deer guts were baked into pies that got the weird little name humble pie. An eute became a newt. Extra “eke names” for people turned into nicknames and people named Ed soon got the nickname Ned. When we got tired of yelling at a noumpere we decided to attack an umpire instead.
Rebracketing gets even weirder once we start looking into other languages. French did what we did with its articles and turned a naranja into une orange. They even did it in reverse and changed Latin apotheca into l’apotheca into la boutique, which in another Romance language gave us the word bodega.
Speaking of the Spanish, rebracketing happens a ton there. Most of these actually came from Arabic influence on the Iberian peninsula and so the Arabic article al appears at the beginning of a lot of them. Al-fasfasa became alfalfa, al-bakura became albacore, al-jabr (a direct reference to the geographic location Gibraltar) became algebra, al-kimiya became alchemy, al-kuhl became alcohol, al-qily became alkali and my favorite, al-zahr, “the dice”, retained its meaning of randomness until it entered English as hazard.
So when Spanish explorers found a monstrous dragon similar to the Egyptian crocodile, they could only describe it as a big scary lizard. El lagarto got mangled into the English word alligator. The spelling we use today is first found in Shakespeare, which is why many folk etymologists will give the false trivia that he invented the word. And hey, look, we rebracketed again by calling them gators instead of the more accurate lligators! Lagarto and lizard both have roots in Latin lacertus, but anything going further back than that is pure speculation.