O’Conner, Patricia T. & Stewart Kellerman. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

NY: Random House, 2009.

In the pre-Internet days, the general reference desk in a large public library (of the sort where I spent several years early in my career) would be backed by a collection of ready-reference volumes to assist in answering patron questions. We got calls all the time to settle arguments about the language, its proper use, the origin of words and terms, the rules of grammar, and “what does that really mean?”

The authors come at the subject from a different direction, though, having both been newspaper and magazine editors.

If you’re a word junkie, you may already know the truth about much of what they include. The bowler hat isn’t named for its bowl shape, for instance, but for Thomas and William Bowler of Southwark, who manufactured it. The jeep of World War II got its name not from “G.P.” (supposedly for “General Purpose”) but from Eugene the Jeep, a popular character in the old Popeye newspaper comic strip. But not every inquiry has an answer backed by evidence. “The whole nine yards” supposedly comes from the length of an ammunition belt for a fighter plane’s machine guns but almost certainly doesn’t, nor has it anything to do with the three sails on each of a ship’s three masts — those have both been thoroughly debunked — but even the likelihood that it originated in the American space program doesn’t answer the basic question: Why not “ten pounds” or “seven miles,” rather than “nine yards”? (Well, because it’s an idiom, and idioms don’t have to make sense.)

They do a good job, too, of explaining back-formation and after-the-fact acronym-invention, as in “posh” originating in “port out, starboard home,” or “S.O.S.” meaning “Save Our Ship,” or “shit” having to do with the overseas transport of manure. All these are, as the title says, specious. And nearly every word thought to be of recent origin turns out to be Anglo-Saxon, or at least Shakespearean. Best of all, every discussion is documented. You won’t find any “take my word for it” here, and that’s all a reference librarian could ask.

Published in: on 2 November 2014 at 5:57 am  Leave a Comment  
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