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Linguistic Myths and Adventures in Etymology

• March 22, 2012 • 4:00 AM

The folk wisdom built up around common English expressions is often wrong, but it can be fun ferreting out the real origins.

The alarm went off. What does that mean? Recently, a friend who is learning English couldn’t quite figure it out. Isn’t the alarm going on, not off, he asked.

Comprehending such phrases is often one of the more difficult steps in learning a language. These idiomatic expressions are collections of words that mean something different than each word’s dictionary definition. For example, “that barking dog next door is driving me up the wall,” if taken literally, could mean that the neighbor’s poodle has recently earned a driver’s license and is using a car to accelerate up the wall dividing our houses. “Woof, woof” could equal “Vroom, vroom.”

But how well do native speakers know their own language? Let’s have fun with our critical thinking skills and apply a little skepticism to some widely believed verbal urban legends.

David Wilton, author of Word Myths and webmaster at Wordorigins.org, coined the concept of “linguistic urban legends,” which tend to be false tales, yet which spring from some grain of truth. These expressions, Wilton claims, “arise mysteriously and spread widely.”

OK? Consider OK. Stories of its origin range all over the map: a Haitian rum port called Aux Cayes, a Choctaw word, okeh, meaning “indeed,” or President Martin van Buren’s nickname of Old Kinderhook. Writer (and noted skeptic) H.L. Mencken got into the act in 1921 when he debunked the popular belief floating around in 1828 that OK was short-hand for “all correct” because of Andrew Jackson’s abbreviations on documents and his misspelling as “oll korrect.”

That last one about Jackson is close but no cigar. It is now generally accepted that the original use of OK came about in 1839 as part of newspaper fads to humorously abbreviate phrases, including funny misspellings from supposedly illiterate characters. So some would use GTDHD for “give the devil his due” for a more literal acronym, and OK for a misspelled “oll korrect.” By now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were LOL or ROTFL over this silly 19th-century fad! OMG, who’d do that these days?

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Or maybe you’re too posh to play along this way. Another widely held linguistic urban legend claims “posh” was an abbreviation for “port out, starboard home” stamped on tickets to designate the shadier and more luxurious sides of the ship when traveling between England and India. Yet, no tickets have been uncovered with “POSH” stamped on them, and evidence exists from the late 19th century of the use of the word posh in a similar way as it is used today. While its exact source is unknown, posh may derive from a Romani or an Urdu word, referring variously to money, a dandy, well-dressed, affluent. Phrases like “port out, starboard home” to define the word posh are sometimes called “backronyms” as we work backwards from the letters to an invented phrase and end up creating what appears to be an original acronym.

Lacking historical perspective can lead us to overlook that there may be nothing new under the sun. Not only were humorous abbreviations used centuries before Twitter, but another computer-related word may not be as new as you think. Let’s hope that your choice of platform to read this article is not infected with a bug. While it is generally believed that an actual insect jammed some relay switches in an earlier version of the computer and the word spread throughout the industry, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word to Thomas Edison in 1889 using it metaphorically to indicate a difficulty with his new phonograph invention and blaming the glitch on some imaginary bug.

Successfully finding the source of many of our idiomatic expressions sometimes has a snowball’s chance in hell. Many are passed along orally, and no written record exists. Yet, sometimes, good critical thinking and skeptical analysis can uncover the linguistic rumor.

One famous example is the alleged multiple words for snow that Eskimos use. Noted anthropologist and linguist Franz Boas, discussed the Inuit’s four — only four — words for snow in 1911.

However, by 1940, thanks to Benjamin Lee Whorf of Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fame, the original point of Boas’ linguistic observation got transformed into the idea that Eskimos actually see snow in multiple ways and categorize the world differently. Whorf, in one of his writings, increased Boas’ examples to at least seven, according to research in 1989 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum. Pullum argues that “the myth of the multiple words for snow is based on almost nothing at all. It is a kind of accidentally developed hoax….”

This seemingly provocative notion of many words and perceptions of the Eskimos’ world, well, snowballed. Anthropologist Laura Martin provided many examples in her 1986 published research about the Eskimo snow hoax, such as the Lanford Wilson play, The Fifth of July, which said there were 50 Eskimo words for snow, a New York Times editorial in 1984 that claimed there were 100 types of snow, and a Cleveland television station that reported the existence of 200 words while discussing the local snow storm.

Discovering the meanings behind our idiomatic expressions, linguistic hoaxes, and proverbs illustrates the fun side of skeptical thinking. So join in and when that alarm comes on (or goes off), wake up and smell the coffee.

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Peter M. Nardi
Peter M. Nardi, Ph.D, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of "Doing Survey Research: A Guide to Quantitative Methods.”

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