folk etymologies and false word histories explained
This is a book of folk-etymologies, false-etymologies, pseudo-etymologies – call them what you will. As Michael Quinion explains, once a colourful explanation for the origin of a term is offered, it’s hard to shift, no matter how flawed it might be. His book title Port Out, Starboard Home is taken from one of the most famous – the assumption that the word ‘posh’ is an acronym from reservations made with the old steamship companies servicing the British Empire. The story seems plausible, and it’s attractive – but it’s not true.
He covers lots of others such as honeymoon (nothing to do with honey) Elephant and Castle (which actually has connections with one of my local towns, Bolton) and Jerusalem Artichoke, which is not an artichoke and isn’t from Jerusalem. En route he takes you through some interesting byways – such as the reasonably well known example of British servicemen in the First World War converting ca ne fait rien into san fairy ann.
Entries run from akimbo to Zzxjoanw, which was passed off for years as a Maori name for a drum – despite the fact that there is no Z, X, or J in the Maori alphabet.
He gives detailed and plausible explanations for difficult cases such as the Big Apple (New York) and you would hardly believe how much can be written about the origins of apparently simple words such as aluminium and jazz.
So in a typical example, such as Ballyhoo for instance, he lists all the supposed explanations for the word’s origins – then quietly explodes them as myths, and substitutes either a reasonable explanation, or an admission that we simply don’t know. The same is true for expressions such as break a leg, for which he gives several possible explanations, before coming up with the the most plausible.
Michael Quinion is a scholar, and as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary he knows his stuff. He cites his sources and he knows the etymological history of language back to the early Renaiassance. But I don’t agree with him that the negative should be removed from all mouth and no trousers.
And he also keep a very good web site at www.worldwidewords.org – from which many of these examples are drawn. I visit regularly when I get stuck, and I’m rarely disappointed. The site also has a weekly newsletter which gives updates on issues to do with problems, difficult words, and complications in English Language. But like most people, I like having something between hard covers.
© Roy Johnson 2005
Michael Quinion, Port Out, Starboard Home and other language myths, London: Penguin, new edition 2005, pp.304, ISBN: 0141012234