Fancy Etymologies :: Cannibal
Cannibal : n. A man (esp. a savage) that eats human flesh; a man-eater, an anthropophagite. Originally proper name of the man-eating Caribs of the Antilles.
This month's fancy etymology not only has a disturbingly intriguing subject, but a unique etymological development as well. While I try to avoid words that simply derive from proper nouns, I felt that cannibal deserved a second look. To understand this etymology, we get to take a look at phonology, the branch of linguistics that deals specifically with how sounds interact with each other in words and phrases.
Cannibal derives from the name of anthropophagites living in the Caribbean. When the Oxford English Dictionary points out that “that l, n, r interchange dialectically in American languages,” we can see how one word became the other. For example: say carib as you would say it in your natural dialect. Now say it again, but when you pronounce the r, pronounce it by hitting the tip of your tongue against the stiff ridge behind your teeth. (This sound is called an alveolar flap, by the way, and is how single r's are usually pronounced in Spanish.) Now say cannib. See how close they are? Your tongue hits the ridge behind your teeth in almost exactly the same spot.
Although the development of a word and its social context is a complicated process, it's nice to remember that sometimes just by examining the interaction of sounds, we can understand how words change. Now go practice your alveolar flaps.