Victor Mair has a Log post about an interesting situation:
“Arirang” (Hangul: 아리랑) is arguably the most famous Korean folk song. Indeed, “Arirang” is so well-known that it is often considered to be Korea’s unofficial national anthem. Yet no one is sure when the song arose nor what the title means. […]
There are hundreds of theories of the origin and meaning of “arirang”. In “What Does Arirang Mean? The Theories on the Etymology of Arirang” (5/24/15), the author examines nine of the theories, which ascribe the song’s origin to dates ranging from the first c. BC to the late nineteenth century AD and which contend that the title is based on the personal name of two different heroines, that it means “I Part from My Dear”, that it means “Our Escape Is Difficult”, that it means “My Ears Become Deaf”, that it means “Mute and Deaf”, that it is a Classical Chinese onomatopoeic expression signifying the grunts of laborers, that it signifies “Russia, America, Japan, and England” (!), or that it is the name of a hill. The phonological transformations that are required to get from many of these terms and expressions to “arirang”, quite frankly, require considerable imagination.
The linked post by “Kuiwon” sounds somewhat tendentious, and frankly I’m happy to leave the song’s origin a mystery, but the discussion is worth reading, and I was particularly struck by this comment from Bob Ramsey:
[…] After all, Korean etymological “science” itself is pretty free-wheeling—just as the corresponding studies in Japan are. Virtually all of the so-called etymological dictionaries you see in Korea are ridiculously fanciful and often outrageously anachronistic. And that is certainly true of everything you see said about the word arirang. I doubt it’s a mystery that will ever be solved.
I might point out, though, that my old mentor Lee Ki-Moon has for decades now been engaged in a truly serious project of putting together a genuine etymological dictionary of Korean But his work has been excruciatingly slow and difficult. The etymologies that he’s written up and sent me are always carefully documented, but for the most part they are studies about obscure and sometimes obsolescent words. I’m thinking that his project will outlast him and never be completed.
What a sad situation! I realize I’m spoiled being a speaker of a language with over a century of scientific etymological work and a student of other such languages, but it always shocks me to learn about major languages (Arabic being, I suppose, the most prominent) with no good etymological resources. Korean has (according to Wikipedia) about 80 million speakers, for heaven’s sake; it should have at least one decent etymological dictionary, even if it only covered basic vocabulary.