Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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?

[class name=”dont_print_this”]

Skeptic's Cafe

SKEPTIC'S CAFE
Peter Nardi discusses how to use our critical skills to avoid scams, respond to rumors and debunk questionable research.

[/class]

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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Pacific Standard on Facebook.

Follow Pacific Standard on Twitter.

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.”

More From Peter M. Nardi

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


December 15 • 2:00 PM

No More Space Race

A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a much more globally collaborative project.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.