Linguistic Myths and Adventures in Etymology

The folk wisdom built up around common English expressions is often wrong, but it can be fun ferreting out the real origins.Linguistic Myths

Stories of the origin of the term “OK” are all over the map. (Marko Tomicic/Shutterstock) 

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 benothing 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 waysand 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.

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