etymythology /et-uh-mith-ALL-ə-gee/. noun. A false/folk etymology. “The lexical version of the urban legend…”
Word-nerd Twitter (yes, there is such a place and yes, you want to be there) was triggered last week by dictionary editor, author and podcaster Korey Stamper’s debunking of a false of the word “tag.” Perhaps the movie of the same name appearing inexplicably in the Top 10 Box Office results was the final straw after months of memes reading:
So, how old were you when you found out the game Tag stands for touch-and-go? I was today years old.
At any rate, Stamper took to Facebook (yes, there is such a place and no, you do not want to be there) to, as she put it, “crush the dreams of a lot of ‘tag’ enthusiasts” who believed this logical sounding explanation. Stamper cruelly pointed them in the direction of a mystery: no knows the origin of the word tag, though this particular gaming use goes back to 1738, and there is some reason to believe tag was a variation of tig, itself a variation of tick, which in Middle English meant to pat or touch. All of these—tag, tig, tick, and additionally touch—are used in English to refer to the familiar children’s game.
Such false etymologies—sometimes called “folk etymologies” though that has a specific, different meaning to linguists—are common. My own rule of thumb is that the more logical and intriguing an etymological explanation seems, the more likely it is to be spurious. In fact, the phrase “rule of thumb” itself is routinely victim of a false etymology, often supposed to come from an old—usually said to be Medieval—law that limited the thickness of the rod a man was allowed to beat his wife with. But the earliest evidence attributes that meaning of the phrase to cartoonist James Gilrary who created an illustration in 1782 mocking a judge—who he named Judge Thumb and pictured selling supposedly acceptably sized rods—for referring to an idea mythical even then. Not to mention that the first citation of the common use of the phrase dates back nearly 100 years earlier to a 1692 fencing guide in which Sir William Hope wrote:
What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art
In his 2004 article with the weird, slightly scary title “Spitten image : Etymythology and Fluid Dynamics,” Laurence Horn coined the wonderful word—etymythology—to refer to this particular kind of popular word origin story. Horn writes:
Etymythology is the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable—or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom—not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer).
The mythical, legendary, literally fabulous force of etymythologies goes some way toward explaining why they are so prevalent despite routine, insistent—sometimes desperate–sounding—attempts at correction. As I write, the “how old were you” meme I mentioned earlier was shared more than 10,000 times in just the 48 hours after the recent flood of corrections about the history of the word tag, which included splashy posts from Merriam-Webster and Snopes.
These often colorful, occasionally ingenious yarns are everywhere, about words new and old. I was surprised at some I’d fallen for and how easy it was to pass them on to others (sorry, unwitting subjects).
For example, the omnipresent for a day bae is simply an abbreviated form of baby or the (surprisingly to me) earlier babe, not an acronym for “before anyone/all else.” Nor is phat-with-a-ph short for pretty, hot, and tempting or pretty hips and thighs.
These acronymic etymythologies—a great phrase to drop into your next cocktail conversation—are one of the most common kind of false etymologies…and most commonly wrong. That’s because though acronyms have existed since ancient Roman times, they were very uncommon, and until the 20th century, almost never used as pronounceable words (what we commonly call an acronym now as opposed to unpronounceable initialisms, like AT&T or IBM).
It wasn’t until World War I, when acronyms emerged as part of military jargon, that they caught on in the civilian world as “regular” words. For example, the acronym Anzacs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) became commonly used for the distinguished group celebrated every April 25 on Anzac day. Thus, as Jesse Sheidlower puts it in his delightful book The F-Word:
Acronyms are extremely rare before the 1930s, and etymologies of this sort—especially for older words—are almost always false.
The unspeakable-on-the-radio subject of Sheidlower’s book is itself the subject of a number of popular etymythologies, variously proposed to stand for the phrases “for unlawful carnal knowledge” or “fornication under consent of the king” or the admirably concise “Fornication Under Christ, King.”
Profanity is an inevitable source of etymological tall tales. One of our more common English profanities has been theorized to be an acronym for “Ship High in Transit” based on an involved story involving the shipment (and explosions) of containers of ethane-emitting manure that were packed too low in the—well—bowels of ships. More sensible (and more amusing) are stories such as those related by Hugh Rawson in Wicked Words, where a “youngster” might tell you that his “brother has just been admitted to the Sam Houston Institute of Technology” or Army officers who did not go to West Point referring to it as the “South Hudson Institute of Technology.”
Perhaps borne of a similar need to create a sense of legitimacy and defend their use, racial and ethnic slurs are the source of some creative etymythologies. It has been proposed, for instance, that wop stands for without papers, without passport, or working off passage…which sounds a little better than the reality that it comes from the Italian and Spanish guapo (dandy), which is ultimately from from the Latin vappa (literally “sour wine” but also “worthless fellow”). Incidentally, vappa is related to vapidus (flat, insipid), from which we get the sadly useful vapid.
Other fictions invoked to explain slurs include spic, which is not derived from hispanic, much less an acronym for Spanish Indian and Colored, or Spanish, Polish, Italian Chinese, gringo, which was certainly not an adaptation of Mexicans shouting “Green, Go!” at green-clad American Army soldiers, and the more recent chav, heard on gritty BBC crime films and television shows, whose origin is unknown but clearly not an acronym for “council house and violent.”
It makes some sense to look for more reasonable meanings behind profane words. But sometimes it seems a story is made for a word for no apparent reason at all. Take the word “news” which is, just as I thought anyone would’ve thought, a pluralized form of the word “new” as in new things. But apparently this was too obvious and a couple of etymythologies have emerged: one that news is an acronym for the points of the compass (north, east, west, south)—which makes just about as much sense as its use as a jumbled mnemonic to remember those directions—and the more reasonable, but wholly unnecessary notion, that news is an acronym for “notable events, entertainment and sports.”
And speaking of not-sports, I grew up believing the Adidas brand stood for “All Day I Dream About Sports” when it is, in fact, derived from founder Adi Dassler’s name. On the other hand, ASICS—another fine shoe—actually is acronymic, representing the Latin phrase [anima sana in corpore sano], which translates as “Healthy soul in a healthy body.”
A little prodding and a world of mythology appears behind and within some of our most common words. The tip I give at a local coffee shop (the sole reason I ever have to carry cash anymore) isn’t “to insure promptness” or “politeness” – not only does my experience show no correlation but insure-with-an-i isn’t right anyway (it should be ensure-with-an-e). I assumed that some of the more canonical concoctions would be well-known to be untrue, but the incredibly intelligent and forgiving friends I tested them on showed they remain at least plausible even fully believed. Most didn’t bat an eye when I said golf stood for “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” (which, to be fair, is unbelievably still literally true at some clubs) or posh was another way of saying “port out; starboard home.” Even my assertion that coma was short for “cessation of motor activity” didn’t raise any eyebrows, though to be fair by that point my test subjects may have themselves been comatose.
There are some outlandish etymythologies that court incredulity from all but the most ardent dreamers. My favorite is the tale that Henry VIII (or Elizabeth I, or James I) loved a tasty loin so much (it kind of has to be Henry VIII, then, right?) that he ordered his servants to hold it and kneel so he could knight the dish and then said “Arise, Sir Loin” – giving us the sirloin steaks we carnivores still slaver over today. That story is certainly a lot more fun than the reality, that sirloin comes to us from the Middle French word surlonge (literally over + loin), or a cut of meat originating above the loin.
Caveat Lextor! As Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett of A Way With Words put it:
We’re permanently modifying our standard advice: “Never get your etymologies from tour guides, menus, museums, or memes.”