The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective SpecGram Vol CLXXXI, No 4 Contents SyllaBerries—Advertisement

Good Enough for Folk EtymologyPart I

A. Pocryphal & Verity du Bius
X. Quizzit Korps Center for Advanced Collaborative Studies

The SpecGram Archive Elves recently made a large collection of documents available to the XQK Directorate, by leaving them on our doorstep in black plastic sacks in the middle of the night. After an unfortunate incident involving a cucumber, a marmot, and the Director’s favourite coffee mug, we were given the task of cataloging these documents. Going through the collection, we have found that, while apparently lacking provenance (which the Archive Elves attribute to a bizarre set of circumstances obscurely alluded to in editorials passim), they shed unexpected light on the origin of several well known words and phrases. Note that some entries contradict others. Etymology is like that.

Here we publish the first half of our collection of excerpts.

From The Viking’s Guide to Stoicism:

In an effort to quell their destructive emotions, certain Norse warriors strove to quiet their inner turmoil by first quieting their outer mien, often by invoking the aid of one or more of their pantheon. The most common of these evocations was, “I am woe, Odin.” Their firm, stolid visages were seen as the model of unyielding strength. As a fixed phrase, this petition to Odin was subject to haplology, and then reanalysis. Application to the strongest of the structural tissue of trees is a backformation.

From A Diatribe upon the Decay of Philosophy:

The true philosopher is consistent in all he says, but there are many who claim to be philosophers and yet contradict themselves incessantly. These fellows are as stupid as oxen, and thus may be called oxy morons.

From Scotland, Science and the Mists of Time:

It is well known that, as well as being able furniture throwers, Scots are also highly intelligent. This, coupled with their inherited ability to get into a stramash when out on the randan, led to a race of people who were very good at making dangerous substances that could be thrown in a fight. Hence, the name “chemist” is a corruption of “och, ye miss’d”, said when one’s colleague failed to whack the napper of his opponent with a test tube full of something totally rank. Similarly, “physics” is a corruption of “physog”, from “physogeny” or one’s face, which itself became a weapon during a “Glasgow Kiss” or headbutt. Lastly, the term “biology” has a rather complicated backstory, involving John Logie Baird, the invention of the television and an ill-planned advertising campaign involving a rather strong Scottish lady, some porridge and a little too much whisky.

From The Untold Stories of Every Academic Discipline:

Ever wondered where “linguistics” got its name and why it is plural? Well, it all began in the mid-19th century with an anthropologist named Prof. Lyndon (Lyn) Gwee. Desperate to find a way of storing data that worked in even the muddiest of field sites, he decided to note down the enunciations of his informants on small wooden paddles. Practice showed that these paddles needed to be thin and flat, and hence they became little more than small branches, stripped of bark and planed with sharp stones. Soon, his invention caught on in the field research community and started going by the name of “Lyn Gwee’s sticks”. As we all know, people rarely pronounce every phoneme of every word and, within a few years “Lyn Gwee sticks” became frozen as the single word “linguistics”, which soon became applied to any field involving the rather thankless and hopeless task of writing down what people say and trying to make any sense of it at all. How the name was applied to work pretending that people actually said something else that better fit your preconceived ideas is anyone’s guess.

From Savage as a Meat AxeCowboy Yarns and Lore:

Until the development of cheap stainless steel, many homesteaders in the American West had to make do with cast iron fencing implements that easily rusted, hence the common term for people living far from the cities, “rusty-gated.” Due to a merger of intervocalic stops, this was reanalyzed as one word and hyper-corrected to “rusticated.”

From A History of 20th Century Britain:

A famous anecdote recalls the following conversation between Winston Churchill and Bessie Braddock:

Braddock: Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.

Churchill: Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.

Often omitted from retelling is the follow-up utterance by Braddock, “Bugger off, Churchill!” In fact, this response became used so often that “Churchill” was eventually elided to “churl”, which subsequently became a word applied to anyone whose actions merited such a response.

From Everyone Expected The Roman Inquisition:

It is well-known that Galileo had a lot of trouble with the Inquisition. At one point he was so disgusted with their antics that he gave them a big thumb-down: “A poor C movie.” This has since entered the European cultural heritage as a concise way of voicing quiet disagreement.

From The Home Furniture Builder’s Handbook:

The Scottish athletic event now known as the caber toss has been dramatically simplified from its historical roots. Where competitors now toss a single large beam (typically derived from a larch tree), the game originally involved a husband and wife throwing various wooden household furnishings back and forth to each other. Complicated rules aside, the essence of the competition was that larger items, smaller injuries, and greater distances constituted victory. Many large household items derive their modern English names from this game.

Modern “sofa” descends from the expression “so far”, which became the label for the largest of the items which were traditionally tossed, and which normally would travel “only so far”. Within the game, the “trunk”now referring to a storage boxwas originally a simple larch tree trunk; hollowing the trunk to reduce weight became standard, after which judges required that other household items be placed within the container in order to conform to the original spirit of the toss. Similarly, the “cabinet” was originally a “caber nit”, so named in derision because it was a hollowed trunk section so small it resembled a mere louse’s nit. Indeed, the word “furniture” itself derives from the original “far nature”, a call traditionally grunted out by way of encouragement as one was tossing one’s household item. A final word derived from this game is “sticking plaster”, originally “stick flats her”, which conjures up the unfortunate result that sometimes obtained when a trunk or caber nit landed directly atop an inattentive female competitor.

From A Louisiana Lexicon:

For the French-speaking dockers of New Orleans, the chance of a day’s employment depended on arriving promptly at the port when a ship came in. Therefore, a lookout would be stationed at the docks, who, on sighting a ship, would alert his fellows with cries of “Au quai!” Since no words were more agreeable to the dockers’ ears, this soon became an expression of approval throughout Louisiana, and eventually the whole US.

From Quine’s Treasury of Field Notes:

It is a little-known fact that the brilliant logician W. V. O. Quine began his career as a truly terrible monolingual linguistic fieldworker. While working in Africa he was very nearly trampled by a pachyderm. After barely escaping with his life, he asked his informant for the name of the deadly beast. The informant replied, “Alef ont!” Later fieldworkers discovered decades later that this means “I don’t understand,” but by then the name had stuck with English speakers, and had since been borrowed into several other languages. Quine was long gone, having moved on to research various species of pika, hare, and cottontail.

From Invasive Flora and Fauna:

Europeans first encountered elephants in the context of invading African armies, and mistook the creatures for mastodons whose hair had been burned offhence the ash-colored, bare skin. The name “elephant” comes from early Spanish, originally el infant (“the babyish one”), because the African creatures were so much smaller and more docile than the familiar European mastodons.

From Marine Vocabulary (Family Edition) Vol. 3:

While dockers are not always known for having exquisite vocabularies, they are known for their unusually robust physiques. In some regions, they are also saddled with having the moral rectitudes of drunk sailors. Thus, when one stevedore decided to eschew such illicit pleasures and settle down for cosy family life, he became the talk of his town, all the more so given that genetics had endowed him with an aesthetically pleasing visage. Hence, not only did his become the “face that launched a thousand ships” due to his long service but his mere presence on the quayside led to an increase in crew morale. Thus, sailors would gleefully shout to one another, “here comes that hunky dorey”, which, though time and laziness was reduced to “hunky dory” and the expression of contentment we have today.

From Pedagogical Tales of Amish Country:

In the early 20th century, it was often difficult to convince youngsters in rural areas in the US of the importance of doing their schoolwork. As most were destined for traditional farm labor, they saw little value in learning to read and write. In 1907, a brilliant young school teacher working with reluctant adolescents in the rich farmland surrounding Lancaster, PA, devised an innovative system of motivation for these children. She ordered five-pound sacks of candies, usually peppermints, from the nearby F. W. Woolworth store and carefully wrapped each candy in a piece of paper on which she’d written the student’s list of work for that day. Each child received his or her list of tasks in the morning, unfolded it and got right to work. When they showed that they had completed all the tasks by writing their names on the bottom of the list, they were then allowed to eat the candy. Thus a list of work to be done began to be called “signed mints”. Through reanalysis and syncope of unstressed material in the middle of the word, these are now called “assignments” in honor of that young teacher.

From The Bushman’s Almanac:

Garu is an Aboriginal word (can’t tell you which language mate, but no worries) meaning “to travel by leaping”. Aboriginals traditionally divide animals into those that can garu, and those that can’t.

More to come...

The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective
SpecGram Vol CLXXXI, No 4 Contents