Questions to Ask After Any Linguistics Talk—Juan Point and Justin I. Dear SpecGram Vol CLXXXV, No 2 Contents The B-Cos® S-Mobile—Advertisement

Good Enough for Folk EtymologyPart VI

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

The SpecGram Archive Elves recently made another large collection of documents available to the XQK Directorate, leaving them on our doorstep in black plastic sacks in the middle of the night. In order to avoid any more unfortunate incidents involving a cucumber, a marmot, or the Director’s favorite coffee mug, we were given the task of cataloging these documents. Going through the collection, we have found again that, while apparently lacking provenance (which the Archive Elves still 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 sixth half of our collection of excerpts.

From And God Thinks He’s a Mathematician:

The tradition of using birds for counting goes back a long way, predating even “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Red birds are the easiest to see, so it was inevitable that counting this way would produce cardinal numbers. Mathematically inclined bird watchers would compare the largest flocks they had seen. One day an unimaginably large number of birds showed up at a drunk mathematician’s estate.* When his colleagues asked him the cardinality of the set, he tried to say, “Hell if I know!” Misheard as “aleph-no”, this led to a variety of related terms for the concept: “aleph-null”, “aleph-naught”, and “aleph-zero”.

Years later, a very large, mysterious animal showed up, completely blocking the field of view of anyone who stood too close to it. People argued over its cardinality. There were those who claimed that it was an infinity of little pieces, like that big set of cardinals but even bigger. Others argued that, whatever it was, there was only one of it. To quell the riot that was forming, one brave soul suggested a compromise: its cardinality was “aleph-one”. Centuries later, we still refer to it as an “elephant”.

* This was in an era when research funding was generous.

From Our Cephalopod Friends:

When presented with a live specimen of this wriggly many-legged creature, the Scottish captain insisted it be fed to the ship’s cat, yelling, “Och! To Puss!”
At fish markets, edible cephalopods of the order Teuthida would generally sell for £5, or as it was conventionally written on signs, “5 quid.” A misreading of the 5 as an S gave rise to their currently used common name.

From Professors Are Nuts and Other Tautologies:

In the heady 19th Century at Cambridge, each incoming group of “fresh” men would choose a whimsical mascot, representing the stout character and high aspirations of the students. The group which began its studies in Christ’s College 1829 chose as its symbol the recently-discovered and delectable macadamia nut, which embodied the scholars’ desire for new ideas, foreign adventures, and lucrative income. Introducing himself to others with the formulaic “I’m macadamia”, the proud collegian would proclaim his loyalty to his class. As English has no geminate consonants, the position of /m/ in the string was open to reanalysis, and by 1832 the term was perceived as “academia” by nearly everyone at Cambridge; when the annual mascots custom was discontinued by royal decree in 1835, “academia” generalized to include the entire Cambridge population, and later also to Oxford and other institutions.

From More Microbes!:

New microbes are discovered in the strangest places. One type of protozoan was first found in a container of shaky cheese in the back of a grad student’s fridge, and so the discoverers dubbed it Parmesanium. Due to a series of mishearings and typos, this mutated into Paramecium.

Another notorious microscopic creature was found in a bad batch of lox from a fish market run by a woman nicknamed “Salmon Ella.” After several much-publicized cases of food poisoning, she attained the dubious honor of having the pathogen named after her.

From Untold Stories of Immigrants:

When early settlers landed at Roanoke, they found that personal hygiene was an issue. They soon created a site for ablutions around the Potomac River and named it Washing Town. Over time and use, this was simplified to its current name.

From The Martial Artist’s Almanac:

The dojo should maintain a record of which training routines each student has studied and mastered. This is known as the kata log.

From Sea-Birds and C-Words:

A group of naturalists on a sea voyage spotted a large flock of aquatic birds which were too far away to identify. An entomologist (or possibly etymologist; accounts vary) by the name of Connor “Cor” More joked that from this distance they looked like ants. In that day’s observation log, the captain wrote “Cor More: ants.”

From Bonfire Night: A History:

When quizzed on how to destroy the Houses of Parliament, Mr Fawkes is rumoured to have said “fire works.”

Instead he opted for stuffing barrels full of the rather explosive clam dish made by a local street vender called Frances Gump. Gump Chowder, as it was known, was subject to later sound changes and confusion with a similar Chinese concoction.

More to come...

Questions to Ask After Any Linguistics TalkJuan Point and Justin I. Dear
The B-Cos® S-MobileAdvertisement
SpecGram Vol CLXXXV, No 2 Contents