Wordsmith.org: the magic of words


A.Word.A.Day

What's New | Search | Site Map | Contact Us  



Michael Quinion's picture

A Chat With Michael Quinion

Date:June 18, 2005
4 PM GMT
9 AM Pacific (GMT -7)
Topic:Language myths
Duration:One hour

Michael Quinion is the author of Ologies and Isms, A Dictionary of Affixes, and Port Out, Starboard Home And Other Language Myths which is available in the US as Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. He has been variously a BBC radio reporter, writer and director of audio-visual programmes for museums, an exhibition scriptwriter, and a heritage interpreter.

For the past decade he has been a field researcher and advisor to the Oxford English Dictionary, writer of a third of the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of New Words and He is perhaps best known as writer and editor of the email newsletter and Web site, both called World Wide Words, which feature the idiosyncrasies and oddities of our language.

Transcript

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the fourteenth online chat at Wordsmith.Org! Our guest today is Michael Quinion who is joining us from near Bristol, UK.

Michael Quinion publishes a weekly newsletter called World Wide Words. He is the author of "Ologies and Isms, A Dictionary of Affixes," and "Port Out, Starboard Home And Other Language Myths" which is available in the US as "Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds." Welcome, Michael.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Thanks! And thanks for inviting me to take part in this online chat. First time for me!

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
Thank you for giving us your time, Michael and Anu. To what do you attribute the appeal of folk etymologies?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
They satisfy a need we all have for comfort and security. We are often less interested in the truth than in a story which we can believe. Truth, alas, is so often the first casualty in popular etymology!

Bingley - Indonesia
But your site and newsletter are very popular. Why do you think that is?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Apart from the astonishing labour and attention to accuracy I always exhibit, you mean?

Bingley - Indonesia
With 23,000 subscribers you must be doing something right

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
People are extremely interested in their language. That's only reasonable. My site appeals, I think, to those who want to go past the prevalent "TIP is from To Insure Promptness" nonsense to something more robust.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
In particular we had in mind false acronyms like POSH, GOLF, and Ship High In Transit.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
These are less easy to provide a really good explanation for. They obviously build on the extraordinary popularity of acronyms and abbreviations. But there's something more going on here, I think.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
What more do you think is going on?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
About the popularity of acronymic folk etymologies, you mean? It's a convenient peg. People need an answer, because not to know something, like the origin of "cop" or "shit", is to display ignorance, and ignorance, as well as being embarrassing, can be dangerous. So they make something up. And acronyms are a good starting point when you're casting around, going "um" to yourself.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
What is your favorite spurious etymology?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
People always ask that question. And I never have a good answer. Every time someone asks that, I make up a new answer. This time, I would point at that story about "Ship High In Transit"!

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
How do words like egg-corns and sparrow grass fit in here?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
It's a related idea. "Sparrow grass" is a good example of a genuine folk etymology, in which people can't make sense of a term and turn it into something that seems to make more sense. It's in the same ball park as "bridegroom", in which "groom" replaced the older "grome" even though a groom in the 14th century was a pretty lowly sort of person.

Arlene - USA
I have never heard of egg-corns - what is the meaning or sense of this word?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Eggcorns are a type of mishearing, rather like mondegreens, only in text. They're called that because of the story of a southern woman in the USA who spelled "acorn" as "eggcorn" because that's the way she said the word. So it's a kind of "spell as you hear" mistake.

Bingley - Indonesia
Do you think folk etymologies have become more prevalent (they exist for more words) and more widely believed since the Internet got going?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
See this site among other sites for more info.

Yes, I do think such etymologies have become more common. The Internet has made it so easy to communicate. Unfortunately, that means folk tales, urban legends, and all sorts of misinformation gets retailed, too. If you're going to have an unmediated commons in communication, that's part of the downside.

Greg Harris -USA
Do you think class distinctions by use of language will fade away or always be?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Nothing will ever change local variations in language, whether that is geographical or personal. The Internet, for example, is sometimes said to be breaking down such barriers but it's more likely that English will continue to fragment into local or regional varieties, and class differences will continue, no matter now much global communication we have and that's in part because people - especially young people - will always want to find something that will help to distinguish them from other people. Hence rapidly changing slang, for example.

Julane Marx - USA
TV is probably doing a lot more to break down barriers than the Internet.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
TV has had a big effect. We notice this in Britain particularly because of the influence of American TV shows coming over.

Greg Harris -USA
Do you think the world landscape of languages will be radically different in 100 years?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
In 100 years? Yes, very different. Many more languages will have become extinct (one a fortnight at the moment, the experts say). And English will, as I've suggested, probably fracture into more local dialects forms with a global language acting as a lingua franca. We only have to look at Latin, and to some extent Arabic, to see that this has already happened in history.

J Sayles USA
Michael, are you saying that English will divide into a number of distinct languages as did Latin?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Eventually, that's my guess. But my crystal ball urgently needs a clean, so I might just be wrong!

Joey-U.S. of A
But with global media, won't it be more likely that terms can become more widespread in places they haven't been in the past?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Global media will undoubtedly help to perpetuate a form of English. But that doesn't meant that terms will become more widespread, rather than the language people communicate in as a second language will become rather pared down.

Julane Marx - USA
We probably all ought to learn some Chinese.

Larry Raney - USA
I am not so sure English will prevail as the lingua franca - starting to look a lot more Spanish in the USA (1 in 7).

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
As to Spanish taking over. My feeling is that we've had this fear of English losing its superiority in the USA before, notably at one time with regard to German, but nothing came of it. Social pressures will cause second-generation Spanish immigrants to learn English, just as all their forebears from other countries did.

Greg Harris -USA
History is probably an uncertain guide because things like the Internet change the picture as radically as the Black Plague.

Daniel--Oregon
I've recently read that India is moving toward beginning English instruction in the first grade. Currently they begin in fourth grade.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
In India, I believe English has an important place as a second language for a large proportion of the population. So it makes sense there. I'm not at all sure that the Internet will be a major force for either keeping English as a global medium of communication or not. The Internet is as much a reflection of global culture as a force changing global culture.

Greg Harris -USA
Classical Greek "degenerated" into Koine as Greek became the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. Will English lose something by becoming a lingua franca?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
We've got a bit away from folk etymology, haven't we?!

Bingley - Indonesia
Have there been cases where something dismissed as a folk etymology has turned out to be correct?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
I'm not sure about that ... I'm thinking ... nothing comes to mind, though. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that it has happened, though!

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
English has a lot more sources to draw from. Have you done any research in folk etymologies in other languages? A Brazilian friend of ours noted a folk etymology of "corrupt" as if from "heart rending."

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
I'd very much like to investigate other languages. Alas, I am nearly monoglot (some French, a little more German, enough Spanish to say hello). I'm sure that folk etymology has a lot to learn from other languages.

Greg Harris -USA
What is your opinion of the Académie Française project of guiding or controlling the evolution of the language?

Michael P.
How do you see the future of the French language?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
AF efforts are doomed to failure, as the French are now realising. The amount of English coming into French is turning into a landslide, and there's nothing much anybody can do to stop it. The legend of Canute comes to mind!

Marshall - United States
And a corollary question to Anna's, what is the longest persisting language myth you have run across? Anything that has crossed one or several language ancestors?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Nothing so long as that, I think. There are many folk tales that purport to have their origins in older languages, like the "sincere" story that is supposed to come from Latin, but there aren't any that actually across language barriers over such a period.

Greg Harris -USA
In third grade, a classmate said, "I understand 'vegetable': it's vegetation that's etable!" Do you think folk etymology begins with one person and spreads around like a joke?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
That's a very nice example of the way that such stories arise. And you're surely right to suggest that it's through such casual comments in a communal situation that is a major force for developing folk etymologies.

Bingley - Indonesia
Do you think the process where many people are now convinced Canute was an arrogant fool who really did think he could stop the waves rather than trying to show his limitations in the face of excessive flattery is similar to folk etymology?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
It's a related phenomenon, isn't it? A folk story in which people get the wrong idea, but persist with it because it's more fun and satisfying to think a king was a fool than that he was trying to knock some sense into his courtiers.

psa - USA
LOL, like my daughter at age four wanted to know if okra came from Okrahoma.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
I like that. Someone trying to make sense of the world, but getting it wrong!

Julane Marx - USA
How do we spread the word about folk etymology? People seem so sad (or embarrassed) when I disabuse them of their little theories that I don't always do it anymore.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
I have the same problem. My book on the subject has sold well, but it was up against a badly researched work that retold a lot of the same old stories, which has actually sold rather better.

Marshall - United States
(yes, I still haven't gotten over 'POSH'...)

Bingley - Indonesia
I like the POSH one, it's the only way I can remember which is port and which is starboard.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
But you need to be good at geography to be able to sort out which is which!

To go back to Julane's point, I don't think there's a good way to disabuse people. Stories are too powerful. They have a hold on people that mere truth can't attain. People do so hate having their prejudices challenged, in any area. We just have to keep telling the truth and hope some of it sticks.

When somebody like Melvyn Bragg can reproduce some howling folk etymologies in his book on the English language, it's hard not to lose one's will to live.

An American researcher named Barry Popik has been fighting for years to get the true stories about "Big Apple" and "Windy City" into the public domain, and he hasn't yet succeeded, which makes him both sad and angry. My feeling is that one just has to take a very long term view!

Greg Harris -USA
Many happy lives rest on contempt for truth.

S_k Raymond USA
Can you give an example of that, from his book?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
From the Bragg book - he mentions several. Hang on a moment ...

An example of Bragg's etymology: that the "real McCoy" derives from the cattle baron Joseph McCoy.

Greg Harris -USA
Speaking of people not liking to be disabused, try telling a Cynthia that her name means "dog goddess"!

psa - USA
I believe etymology should be included in the English curriculum at schools, as it could help awaken a true interest in History and Geography as well as inspiring young authors, my own goal in life.

Julane Marx - USA
It is difficult for truth to compete with the charm of a story like the "Okrahoma" one.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
I know the wordorigins people (Dave Wilton) have very high regard for Barry Popik. It's another site worth visiting.

SusanG
I agree. The time to start is early in Grade 4 or 5, but the dictionaries for those grades do not have the etymology in them.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Yes, he has done a vast amount of useful work, not always acknowledged.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
Do you think words such as sparrow grass are more common than false acronyms?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Yes, acronyms are a small subset of folk etymologies.

Ronr - USA
Don't you think, though, that there is some benefit to folk etymologies? They can pique interest in word origins that can eventually lead the interested to sites such as, say, worldwidewords.org.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Well, put like that I suppose there's some value in them and they do no great harm, after all, most of the time but it would be good to have people accept that truth is better than fiction.

SusanG
My mother used to say: "Words don't mean, people mean." And isn't that a great impediment to communication as most people become angry if you ask them to explain themselves.

Greg Harris -USA
If you move away from true etymologies (pardon the redundancy), you risk losing your connection!

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
There are some folk etymologies that can fuel, for example, racial tensions. Take the stories about "nitty gritty", "squaw", "nit picking" "piccaninny" and others, all of which have accidentally or deliberately caused tension.

Greg Harris -USA
Or "niggardly"?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Yes, that's another good example.

Marshall - United States
Michael, have you found perfectly contradictory popular etymologies as with the use of 'off the wall' in the US to mean (on the west coast) 'somewhat ridiculous', and to mean (on the east coast) 'really good'?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
No, that's a new one on me. I've not come across these stories (and I don't use the expression anyway so it's not familiar to me). Tell me more.

psa - USA
Such phrase comments can really raise the tension in big chat rooms, where the different meanings geographically are not even known.

Julane Marx - USA
Is that a contradictory etymology or simply a different meaning?

SusanG
I found another meaning for "transparent" in a book by Stephen Frey. A character is being used by a superior in the West Wing in a clandestine operation. "How exactly will we pay him? Lucas asked. "If you want this cell to be transparent, I wouldn't think you'd want money trails." This is using "transparent" to mean "invisible".

John - USA
Here in upstate New York, "off the wall" means "somewhat ridiculous". Never heard the other meaning.

Mark L. Levinson - Israel
Sounds like the way "outrageous" gets devalued to mean "amusing."

Marshall - United States
Yes, on the east coast 'off the wall' meant a junkie who could finally stand on their own. West coast 'off the wall' was just 'off base'.

Larry Raney - USA
Same here in South Carolina - somewhat ridiculous.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Thanks for the heads-up on "off the wall". I'll look into this!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
BTW, that different sense of "transparent" comes from computer science.

psa - USA
And in artistic communities, "off the wall" can mean ingenuous thinking

Greg Harris -USA
I think some words with negative connotations, like "bad," "off the wall," "over the top," "outside the box," "round the twist," get adopted by defiant people who become popular, and the meaning gets reversed in popular usage.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
That's right, so clear that it's no impediment to communication.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
Are there any words you can think of that have undergone a change such as sparrow grass has and have gone on to become the "correct" version?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Nothing comes to mind but that's just my awful memory, I expect!

Greg Harris -USA
Wasn't "ask" earlier "aks" in Old English?

Marshall - United States
You've traced these language myths for quite some time. You must have some interesting categories of folk etymologies?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Yes, and "wasp" was "wops" and "bird" was "brid" but these aren't folk etymologies but a different process called metathesis.

Larry Raney - USA
"Shingles" for "cingulus" comes to mind (as Anu knows)...

psa - USA
The slang "bitching" to mean really superior, throws me every time as it certainly wasn't a good word in the past.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
I've seen it claimed that "duct tape" originally was "duck tape".

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Duct tape. There are two stories about that, and I haven't disentangled them yet.

Categories of folk etymology ... There really aren't many. Acronyms and the rest, I suspect!

Marshall - United States
Categories such as 'mishearing' origins, misspelling origins, that sort of thing.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Well, mishearings are really eggcorns or mondegreens. Misspellings, yes, are a form of folk etymology.

Greg Harris -USA
Categories: really plausible to really lame.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
There's certainly a continuum of acceptability and likelihood, I agree.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
Have you ever been to the States? Have you ever investigated regional folk etymologies in the US?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
I've not really looked into regional material in the USA. I've been over several times but I can't claim to be any sort of expert on regional American Englishes. I'm always a little cautious about going the mainstream stuff, being so far away and all.

psa - USA
I love the advertising acronyms in small communities.... usually seen emblazoned on a company van or truck.

Greg Harris -USA
Are there etymologies of signs in sign language? Are there etymologies of characters in ideographic languages?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
There may well be so, but I've never looked into sign language. There's a big potential there for scholarly investigation, I'm sure, if it hasn't already been done. Idiographic languages are most certainly not my forte, so I can't say.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
What do you mean by "mainstream stuff"?

psa - USA
The work and coffee sign in ASL are very similar

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Things like "spelling bee" which are mainstream terms coming out of the USA. Nothing to do with folk etymology, just things I write about in World Wide words.

Marshall - United States
Oliver Sachs (author of 'Awakenings' and 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat') has a charming sign etymology for 'bowing' among Chinese sign language users. It's a little tip of the hand as if bowing.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Due to the large number of questions, Michael has kindly agreed to extend the chat by 15 minutes.

Greg Harris -USA
It's off topic, but how do you manage to do so much in only as much time as we all have in a day?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Well, I'm a quick study. And I have vast electronic resources available because I'm able to use computers pretty extensively. WWWords subscribers might be surprised to learn how little time it takes sometimes to research a topic, but I'm semi-retired, so have little to do except write books, work on WWWords, and do a bit of field research for the OED, so there is quite a bit of time in the day available for looking stuff up and writing about it.

Julane Marx - USA
And, being English, there is the gardening!

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Not really - small garden mostly paved over, low maintenance!

Larry Raney - USA
How do you research a topic?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Researching usually starts with the obvious resources ... the OED, big dictionaries, and the like. After that, it's a question of going where the material takes one. This might be a search through historical newspaper databases, my very large collection of electronic texts and a variety of other, mainly digital resources.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
How much good free material is available on the Web for this kind of research?

Joey-U.S. of A
Do you find the Internet useful, or is it unreliable?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
There is some good material around. In fact, there's masses of good stuff online, provided that you're able to make a good assessment of its value and likely accuracy. For a lot of terms, the Internet is invaluable for searching background and for recent stuff it's very useful to assess whether a term that has come up in general reading or in a newspaper is really worth taking the trouble to write about or look into but for really heavyweight searches, I need paid-for sources, like newspaperarchive.com, the dictionary of national biography, the online OED which is more up-to-date than the CD-ROM and other resources such as these.

Mark Sims
What's the single best source for etymologies?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Generally speaking the OED is good, though very out of date of course since many of its entries are not more than a century behind scholarship. I find the very recent Oxford dictionaries, such as the SOED (the Shorter) and the New Oxford Dictionary, to give a good summary of current research.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
We've heard that attaching an '.edu' to the search helps you weed out the spurious stuff. What do you think about that?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
I've not used that as a trick (but thanks for the tip!). My experience is that academic sources are usually, but not always more reliable than others.

psa - USA
How much folk etymology comes from political speeches, and other political writing?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Hardly at all. Word origins don't feature much in political writing. It's more the non-linguistic type of folk story (like the one about Canute) that tends to be used and perpetuated.

Greg Harris -USA
Studs Terkel did oral history. Is ordinary talk recorded by anyone for scholarly purposes, a la Henry Higgins?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Lots of people are working on slang, and spoken language has come very much more to scholarly attention in recent decades as linguists have realised how much changing spoken language can tell us, for example, about the way language changes as well as a subject in its own right, of course.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
I understand the story of the OED, by Simon Winchester, is in the works to become a movie. Who would you choose to play the role of Minor?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Good heavens, I've no idea!

Greg Harris -USA
I can see the new dust jacket: "Now a Minor Motion Picture!"

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Nice one! I can't imagine a movie from the OED story, though, despite all the conflict and difficulty.

Mark Sims
Slightly off topic... what about origins of accents, particularly the parts of the UK that spawned various American accents?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Access and dialects are a difficult area. So many English dialects have changed in the last century and new ones have grown up, like Estuary English, that there needs to be a continuing programme of research into them. Luckily, there are people interested in the field.

Marshall Williamson - United States
Robert McNeil's The Story of English is an excellent resource on the origins of accents.

Joey-U.S. of A
Do you think as language develops, folk words and slang may become accepted, "normal" language?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Yes, that's a good book to try as an introduction, though linguists object to some of the things in it.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
There's a U.S. Northern Urban Vowel Shift that is, unlike the Elizabethan one, circular.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Yes, the process is continuing with slang and other words becoming accepted, and also words falling out of use.

SusanG
What is Estuary English?

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
It's a form of demotic southern English spoken around London that includes some of the characteristics of Cockney, which has become fashionable and which is frequently heard among educated presenters on British radio and TV

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time.

Thank you, Michael, for being here today and thanks to all the participants. For more, visit World Wide Words.

Michael Quinion (Guest Speaker)
Thanks to you Anu, and to everyone who joined in. Thanks for all your questions. It was fun being here.

Rudyard US- CA
Thank you.

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
This is a really good chat. I would encourage everyone to come to the Wordsmith Talk message board to continue these discussions and start new ones.

Marshall Williamson - United States
Thanks Michael, great session.

Larry Raney - USA
Ditto!

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our next guest is Erin McKean, editor of The New Oxford American Dictionary. It will take place on July 20, 2005 at 6 PM Pacific (GMT -7) [July 21, 1 AM GMT]. We hope to see you then at wordsmith.org/chat/mckean.html.

Joey-U.S. of A
Thanks!

Mark L. Levinson - Israel
Thanks for the enlightening chat.

Tony - USA
Thanks, Michael.

psa - USA
Hope that Wordsmith will announce when M. Quinion is due in America for a seminar.

Joey-U.S. of A
Thanks again, Mr. Quinion, and you too, Anu!

AnnaStrophic & Faldage - USA
Wordsmith Talk, the bulletin board is at wordsmith.org/board.


Chat Events:  

Schedule  

Chat Transcripts:  

Barbara Wallraff  
Atlantic Monthly  

Joseph Pickett  
American Heritage  
Dictionary  
`
Sreenath Sreenivasan  
Columbia University  

Lisa Simeone  
National Public Radio  

David Crystal  
Encyclopedia of English  

Steven Pinker  
Brain & Language  

Wendalyn Nichols  
Random House  

Robert & Jean H.  
Dante's Inferno  

Joseph Bruchac  
Poet  

John Simpson  
Oxford English Dictionary  

Subscriber Services
Awards | Stats | Links | Privacy Policy
Contribute | Advertise

© 2014 Wordsmith