Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends

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Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, by David Wilton. (Oxford University Press, 2004. 240 pp. ISBN 0195172841, US$21.95)

Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, by Michael Quinion. (Smithsonian Books, 2004. 280 pp. ISBN 1588342190, US$19.95)

Every so often, in our bibliophilic journeys, we come across a word or phrase that seems to stick in our minds. Who decides on their meanings? How have these definitions developed over time? And how do we know we're getting the true story?

Finding these answers is the job of the folk etymologist, a linguistic investigator who looks into all these explanations and attempts to separate fact from fiction.

As luck would have it, there are two new books guaranteed to deliver entertaining theories (some of which may actually be true): Dave Wilton's Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends and Michael Quinion's Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins.

Many of the words appear in both books, and the authors' approaches are alike--up to a point. Both authors also "host" web sites devoted to the fine art of verbal archaeology.

In Word Myths, Wilton compares his methodology to those who study what he terms the hard sciences: "Every researcher ... uses a set of tools to verify facts and make new observations." Those tools in his profession include several varieties of dictionaries: historical, etymological, and "slang, jargon, and dialectal directories," as well as other written works.

The problem lies in knowing which ones to trust. Wilton's particular joy lies in "Debunking the Big Boys" (the title of his first chapter). One such linguistic legend surrounds the origin and meaning of the standard nursery rhyme, "Ring around the Rosey." Many believe it to be a reference to the Black Death of the Middle Ages. The "rosey" alludes to the skin lesions of those suffering from the plague; the posies are employed to dull the stench of the corpses, the ashes referring to mass cremations.

"Just as a physicist does not claim a hypothesis is true without experimentation and observations, an etymologist does not plump for a story simply because it sounds logical," Wilton writes regarding this bit of doggerel. Are there other versions? Does the individual word or phrase make sense in the light of deeper investigations? Indeed, he offers several other variations on some.

With good-natured humor, the author recognizes that some might view this picayunishness as being "spoil sport," but a true scientist doesn't let the scoffing of naysayers deter him.

Quinion, a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and the editor of WorldWideWords.org, presents Ballyhoo in a more formal encyclopedic format. Wilton, who, according to the book jacket, has enjoyed an "eclectic career" and is the creator and editor of Wordorigins.org, groups his words and phrases by broad categories.

Quinion, who hails from Great Britain, includes a sizable assortment of words taken from British idiom that will doubtless be unfamiliar to many American readers. Not that there's anything wrong with that; "All mouth and trousers" (Americanized to "all talk and no action") or "Bob's your uncle" (lucky stiff), are just two examples.

More so than Wilton, in counterpart, he can be infuriating as he repeats excuses for not having a hard-and-fast answer to where these words came from: "no one knows," "we're not sure," or "who can say." Both gentlemen offer plausible yet apparently incorrect explanations for many of them, but fail to convincingly state their own rationale. Why couldn't some of these old proffered theories be correct?

Let's compare a single, simple word that's a staple of language today, ok? …