Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. This journalistic aphorism also seems to be apt in the world of pseudoetymology, popularly held but false beliefs about the origins of specific words or expressions. Truth is the first casualty in popular etymology! In his book The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker had a faux etymology of the word etymology. The word is formed from the Latin “etus” (“eaten”), the root “mal” (“bad”), and “logy” (“study of”); it means the study of things that are hard to swallow. With the invention of the Internet this type of material has found a new channel. I will look at why this type of story has become so popular later in this post. But first I wanted to furnish you with some of my favourite examples.
I must also admit that I have fallen for some of these in my time. For example I reproduced the famous Bernard Levin quote about the linguistic influence of Shakespeare. This quote is rather misleading as Shakespeare probably didn’t actually invent many of these words and expressions; his works merely reflect the first recorded use. Geoff Nunberg claims if we could google Elizabethan English as thoroughly as we can the modern language, we’d probably discover that Shakespeare didn’t invent 90 percent of these words. What’s more it is Milton and not Shakespeare who introduced the most words into the English language. According to Gavin Alexander of Cambridge University, who has trawled the entire Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare with 229 neologisms, trails John Milton (630), Ben Jonson (558) and John Donne (342 words) as a coiner of new words and phrases. Anyway it would have been a bit strange If Shakespeare had filled his plays with hundreds of completely new words; His audiences would probably have been lost.
And when it comes to words and expressions there are plenty of old chestnuts. My first example is rule of thumb. One story doing the rounds is that in English common law a man was allowed to discipline his wife provided that he beat her with a stick no thicker than his thumb. This is not true, although the exact origin of the phrase is uncertain. It could be connected to the thumb as a measurement device or in the use of the thumb in a number of apocryphal “rules.” One suggestion is that it comes from beer brewing before the invention of thermometers, when brewers would use their thumbs to measure the temperature of the beer. This is just speculation. The phrase also exists in other languages, for example Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, or in the variant “rule of fist” in Finnish, German and Dutch. The fact that it also exists in Persian would suggest that it goes back a long way.
And staying on legal questions, does testify have its origins in the testes (testicles)? According to my trusty Wikipedia the origin is in the Indo-European roots of *tre- meaning ‘three’ and *sta- meaning ‘stand’. A witness was thus ‘a third person standing by’. From that came the verb testificare ‘to bear witness’, which evolved into Middle English testify in the fourteenth century.
I’m sure you’ve heard the one about the word kangaroo being the product of a cultural misunderstanding. The story goes that when they were asked to identify the mysterious marsupial the natives replied with ‘I don’t know’ in their language. The real story is somewhat different. In eighteenth-century Australia there were at least 700 Aboriginal tribes, speaking as many as 250 different languages. Kangaroo or gangaru comes from one of these, the Guugu Ymithirr language of Botany Bay, where it means the large grey or black kangaroo, Macropus robustus. As the English settlers moved into the interior of Australia they used this word to refer to any old kangaroo or wallaby. When the Baagandji people, who lived 2,250 km (1,400 miles) from Botany Bay and didn’t speak Guugu Ymithirr heard the English settlers using this unfamiliar word they assumed that it meant ‘an animal that no one has ever heard of before’. Since they had never seen them before, they used the word to describe the settlers’ horses.
Many tall tales revolve around acronyms, which, given their prevalence today, are in fact surprisingly modern, not really coming into existence until the last century.. What is less surprising is that the majority of the early ones were military – the armed forces do love their acronyms. AWOL, absent without leave, is generally considered the first one. Although it has its origins in the American Civil War, it only began to be pronounced as a word at the time of the first world war The big explosion of their use came with the Second World War as a number of new technologies emerged. It was in this period that the term acronym was coined by the military. They were not only technological though. One of the most famous is SNAFU, which in its polite form is rendered as Situation Normal All Fouled Up.
The fact that acronyms began to appear in the 20th century should alert us to the false etymologies that claim that some words began as acronyms. The typical examples you hear include tip (To Insure Promptness), posh (Port Out Starboard Home), cop (Constable on Patrol), golf (Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden) and shit (Ship High in Transit). They are all nonsense.
And then of course we have fuck. This word presents a lot of difficulties to etymologists because by its nature it was used far more extensively in common speech than in easily traceable written forms. The OED states that its origin is uncertain, but that the word is “probably cognate” with a number of native Germanic words whose meanings involve striking, rubbing, and having sex.
This type of vacuum provides an excellent opportunity to slip in a factoid or two. Recently a student of mine came out with one: fuck is an acronym of Fornicating Under Consent of King. There are whole edifices built around this. Here is on of my favourites. It is the Middle Ages and the Black Death is wreaking havoc onBritain’s population. Uncontaminated resources are scarce and towns are trying to control populations Many towns require that their residents ask permission to have children. Couples that want children are required to first obtain royal permission through a local magistrate or lord. They then place a sign somewhere visible from the road in their home that said “Fornicating Under Consent of King”, which eventually is shortened to FUCK.
Looking up the word in a good dictionary would have been sufficient to debunk any of these tall tales. They are the lexical equivalent of the conspiracy theory. Cecil Adams of the wonderful Straight Dope website has an excellent rule of thumb: the cuteness of the story is in inverse proportion to the likelihood of its actually being true. So why do we do it? We love a good story. We seek to impose order on a chaotic world. We also need to recognise the difficulty of the enterprise. There are a lot of times when it’s just impossible to know when a word or phrase was first used. Reality is often messy and stories fill this gap. We are storytelling apes. They have a hold on people that mere truth can’t attain. You are not especially popular if you try to disabuse someone of these myths. I can sympathise with this feeling as these creation myths are funnier, more colourful and more memorable than the real explanations, which I have to admit I find confusing and often forget. That’s enough for this week, so goodnight and sleep tight*
* In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase “goodnight, sleep tight”.
Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. Michael Quinion