Anatoly Liberman & folk etymology


Anatoly Liberman & folk etymology dans ETYMOLOGY finistere-pointe-du-razLa pointe du Raz


iroise-sea Anatoly Liberman dans FRENCH/ENGLISH 


Anatoly Liberman, the “Oxford Etymologist”, writes articles on the Oxford University Press‘s blog.

On 28th August 2013, he said, in “Capsize, its origin”: 

Mr Dominic King has written me the following:

Cornouailles [sic] in Finistères [sic] (the extreme western peninsula of Brittany) has a rocky coastline and very treacherous waters, with unpredictable tides and storms.

The most dangerous area for shipping has historically been around the lighthouse-strewn Pointe du Raz and the Pointe du Van, between which lies the infamous Baie de Trépassés, a name which refers to the wreckers who drew ships to their doom, and the bodies washed up along the shore.

The entire cape is known as Cap Sizun

The coincidence of letters seems too exact to ignore. I can well imagine survivors of a ghastly wreck returning to the English Cornwall and mentioning “Capsizin’” in connection with their experience.

I can find no trace of this possible explanation, and wonder what you and your readers might think of my suggestion.”

I would very much like to join Mr King and ask this question of our readers. What is known about the Breton origin of the place name Cap Sizun? Can capsizing be connected with this name?


It is remarkable that people tend to see everything from their own viewpoint.

It is not specific to English speakers.

For example, many French speakers insist that the English word flirt (borrowed by French) has to derive from an Old French verb fleureter.

So much so that hilarious Wikipedia, in its French version, not only accepts this French origin as a possibility (against all evidence), but also wants its Anglophone version to do the same. In this regard, an insight into Wikipedia’s discussions is instructive.

And, in the case of Cap Sizun, it would not occur to Dominic King or to Anatoly Liberman that a Breton name might not have an English origin, but have a… Breton origin.

Both English Cornwall and its Breton counterpart la Cornouaille [without a final -s] are Celtic areas.

It would therefore be strange indeed that, long ago, sailors “returning to English Cornwall” – i.e. Cornish sailors – would have given an English name to a Celtic place.

And why would others than its inhabitants have named the place?

Additionally, in the name Cap Sizun, Siz- is pronounced as the English seize, and not as the English size.


Sizun is a Breton toponym which is not found only in the name Cap Sizun.

In particular, a “commune” in le Finistère [without a final -s] is named Sizun.

And the Breton name of l’île de Sein (an island off the coast of Finistère) is Enez Sun – the second element being a contraction of Sizun.

It seems that the Breton toponym Sizun means jagged, ragged.

In the case of Cap Sizun and Enez Sun, the word refers to the coastline, and, in the case of the commune named Sizun, to the ridges of the nearby mountains, les Monts d’Arrée.


We can see, from Dominic King’s suggestion, how a folk etymology can appear.

Somebody notices a formal resemblance between two words, wants to explain this resemblance, and therefore makes up a story which establishes a fictional etymological link between these words.

This etymology doesn’t even need to resist any scrutiny, as long as the story justifying it is appealing.

And it is quite worrying that the “Oxford Etymologist” did not simply dismiss such a reasoning. 


baie_des_trepasses Celtic languages dans OPINIONSLa baie des Trépassés


Dominic King also says that the baie des Trépassés (literally bay of the Deceased) is so named because of the ship wreckers “who drew ships to their doom”.

But if, as he says, this is “the most dangerous area for shipping”, there’s hardly any need to invoke ship wreckers.

And there is no evidence whatsoever that there were more ship wreckers (supposing there were any) in this particular part of Brittany than anywhere else.


In Breton, Baie des Trépassés is Bae an Anaon, bay of the Souls.

It is often said that the original Breton name was Bae an Avon, bay of the river, and was misinterpreted as Bae an Anaon.

Whether or not we accept – for argument’s sake – that Bae an Avon was misinterpreted as Bae an Anaon, there must be a reason for the present name.

This reason might be found in local legends and pre-Christian beliefs.

Anatole Le Braz (1859-1926), a Breton writer and folklorist, mentioned that the name Bae an Anaon might refer – partly – to the fact that the sea, heard from the bay, sounded like weeping, moaning and groaning.


It is true, however, that shipping is particularly dangerous in those parts, in which – as sailors say – the sea “boils”.

This is why Breton sailors have this proverb: 

Qui voit Molène voit sa peine

Qui voit Ouessant voit son sang

Qui voit Sein voit sa fin

Qui voit Groix voit sa croix.

Sein is Enez Sun. Molène, Ouessant, and Groix are three other islands.

The saying translates as: 

Who sees Molène sees his sorrow

Who sees Ouessant sees his blood

Who sees Sein sees his end

Who sees Groix sees his cross.

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