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Among others, I've heard the following words and their supposed origins:

  • Beef: Comes from the french word "boeuf".
  • Marmelade: Contraction of "Mary" and "malade" according to some story about a doctor using a mixture including oranges to treat Mary Queen of Scots.
  • Mayday: Could come from the french expression "M'aider".

Is there a technical term to describe words like this that come from the gradual distortion of other words (either more ancient or of foreign origin)?

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Every word is a gradual distortion of other words, either more ancient or of foreign origin. Father is a distortion of "fæder", between is a distortion of "betweonum", meaning "by two each", and a and one are both distortions of "an". – RegDwigнt May 9 '12 at 22:45
@RedDwight You're right. That's how languages evolve. I'll rephrase. Is there a word that describes this process? – James Poulson May 9 '12 at 22:47
You mean besides evolution? – John Lawler May 9 '12 at 23:02
Other than "(language) evolution"? Don't think so. Each word has its very own history. Vowel shifts, malapropisms, eggcorns, metaanalysis, metathesis... There are way too many way too different processes at work. Trying to find a hypernym for them all will only get you something as vapid as "change" or, well, "evolution". – RegDwigнt May 9 '12 at 23:03
"Marmelade" is nothing to do with Mary, despite the popular bit of etymythology you quote: it's actually from Portuguese "marmelo" = "quince". – Colin Fine May 9 '12 at 23:16
up vote 1 down vote accepted

The term sometimes used is corruption.

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There are many factors and processes at work here, just one of which is anglicisation:

Anglicisation or anglicization is the process of converting oral or written elements of any other language into a form that is more comprehensible to an English speaker; or in general, of altering something so that it becomes English in form or character. It is also called anglification, anglifying, or Englishing. The term most often refers to the process of altering the pronunciation or spelling of a foreign word when it is borrowed into English. Personal names may also be anglicised. This was rather common for names of antiquity or of foreign heads of state, and it has also been common among immigrants to English-speaking countries (for example, Battenberg became Mountbatten).

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