The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective SpecGram Vol CLXXXVI, No 4 Contents Doris—Plato

Good Enough for Folk EtymologyPart IX

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 ninth half of our collection of excerpts.

From Omens and Portents:

The brilliant “Dog Star” was thought to exert an especially powerful influence over terrestrial affairs of every kind, hence the expression used for matters of great significance: “This is Sirius!”

From Scots Know Everything:

Very few people are aware that Edinburgh got its name from an unlucky Celt who got his cranium stuck in a rabbit warren.

From Theology and Philology:

The church would welcome any nave (then spelled without the silent k) to enter the church and be given a second chance(l). Some went too far and would re-(l)apse, so priests would give them helpful advice: Noel.

From The Statistics of Words and the Words of Statistics:

The “mean” was so-called because, in the days before pocket calculators and R, calculating an average was a very tedious task and asking someone to do it was a very mean thing to do. Furthermore, those struggling to figure out the average of a confusing set of data would often cry in frustration, “What does it all mean?” And so the word took on a new significance.

Because of the difficulty of calculating averages, it became fashionable to use the peak of the frequency distribution instead, especially in France. Fashionable things are referred to as “à la mode” to this day.

From Linguistic Terms Old and New:

Every linguistics department has a class taught by a syntax skeptic, who spends the entire semester pointing out (in excruciating detail) the insufficiency of purely formal descriptions to capture important facts about how speakers put together longer strings of talk into stories, conversations, and the like. These instructors are so focused on insulting others and their models that the class is universally called “The Diss Course”.

The origin of the term “analytical” is actually unknown, apart from an obscure story about a dodgy Mexican meal and its consequences.

From The History of Maritime Customs:

While the Vikings are best known for their raiding, pillaging and exploring, they were also talented and passionate musicians. On long voyages, longboat captains would keep morale up by getting the crew to belt our popular ditties. To ensure correct pitch, they would get rowers to tune up by singing the syllable “lor”. As this was repeated when they arrived on shore, monks christened them the “men who say ‘lor’ ”, giving us the word “sailor”. In later years, it would be discovered that putting your mum’s best bed sheet on a stick could produce just as much power as twenty vikings. This invention was called the “sailor replacer”, before eventually being reduced to “sail”.

From An Industrial History of the World:

The signers of the US Declaration of Independence wanted to look smart for the occasion. A local businessman offered his services with a newspaper advert that read “I, Ron Weasley, can flatten all your clothes with my new Metallic Clothes Flattener”. So great was his success that the device was renamed the “I, Ron”, eventually to become the “iron”.

A generation later in Scotland, metallurgists Fiona and Russ Stewart proved that the material from which the iron was made was part of a larger family, which they called the FeeRuss metals.

From Entomology and Etymology:

Linguistic and acoustic researchers, noticing the similarity of spectrogram patterns to swarming columns of army ants, referred to the frequency components observed in speech as “formations of ants,” which became abbreviated into the standard term “formant.”

This lovely purple-black butterfly was first spotted clinging to a scientist’s alarm clock at sunrise. The observer therefore called it a “morning clock butterfly”; but since he had understandable difficulties with the vagaries of English orthography what he actually wrote was “mourning cloak.”

From Pageantry and Pachyderms:

Elephants were unknown in England before 1172 AD, when a Prince of Castille made a visit. He arrived riding on an elephant with a magnificent jewelled howdah, which had been diplomatic gifts from the Sultan of al-Andalus. His attendants went ahead of him proclaiming his title, “El Infante de Castille”. The English misheard this as “Elephant and Castle”, and taking “Castle” to refer to the howdah, interpreted “Elephant” as the name of the beast carrying it.

From Commercial Colloquy:

Those who wished to quantify every aspect of the enterprise were often treated with disdain by those who favoured a more intuitive approach to business, and would often dismiss them with the words, “Ah, count ants!”

More to come...

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