January 18, 2006

And still they come

The market for books of word and phrase origins seems to be inexhaustible.  Most of them have no visible scholarship whatsoever, just bald assertion.  And many of the sources they propose are preposterous, or plausible-sounding but clearly wrong.  (There are books that are honorable exceptions, most recently Michael Quinion's Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.) Yet still they come.

The latest of these horrors to come to my attention is Albert Jack's Red Herrings and White Elephants (HarperCollins, 2004).  No references for its claims, and just opening pages at random I found three appalling entries in as many minutes.

Number one: mealy mouthed, Jack claims, derives from Ancient Greek melimuthos 'honey speak'.  There is no mention of meal (as in the OED), instead this elaborate and strained loan-word account.  Well, they sound sort of alike.

Number two: fell swoop Jack takes back to Shakespeare, claiming that once the bard used the word fell in this phrase in the Scottish tragedy, it came to have the meaning 'evil'.  Good grief, even without checking the OED, I knew that fell 'evil' goes back to Old English.  (I checked the OED anyway; memory is a fickle thing.)  I'm guessing that somewhere Jack heard that Shakespeare was involved in the history of the phrase and then just made up the rest of the story.  Shakespeare is in fact involved, as Quinion explains in his entry for one fell swoop: when Macduff learns that his entire family has been murdered, he does indeed cry out, "O hell-kite!  All?  What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?"  And this would have been understood entirely compositionally by everybody in the audience, as a metaphorical allusion to the evil plummeting of a kite (the bird) as it seizes its prey.  Not a novel meaning of fell at all, but a wonderfully effective image.  And so one fell swoop became a memorable, and quotable, expression.  Unfortunately, fell 'evil' later pretty much dropped out of use in English, leaving this expression marooned as an idiom.  It's a nice little story about language history, much better than the story Jack invented.

Number three: the spill the beans entry provides a charming tale about voting with beans in Ancient Greece.  (Again, the Ancient Greek thing!)  Against this is the OED's assertion that the expression is originally U.S. slang and the fact that the dictionary has no cites for it earlier than 1919 (from an American source, of course).

Enough, enough.  It's a terrible book, by someone who doesn't seem to know how to use dictionaries. We need a new genre category for publications like this: "etymological fantasy", "fantasy etymology", or maybe "fantetymology".

The one customer review on amazon.com -- it's a counterweight to a positive snippet from an editorial review in the Knutsford (Cheshire) Guardian -- is rather more detailed, and even more negative, than mine.  But then I spent only 15 minutes on mine, mostly writing time; my reading time was blessedly brief.  Here is "Syntinen", writing from southeast England:

This book should carry a label saying "Warning - don't assume that any of this is true". In the foreword the author portrays himself as being inspired to write it when sitting in an olde English pub musing on the oddness of English phrases. It reads as though it had been researched in a pub as well; many of the "origins" given are exactly the kind of thing you'd be told by some wiseacre leaning up against the bar. To disprove some of them, such as "keeping danger at bay" and "on the fiddle", wouldn't even take a reference library; you'd only need to look up the words in a good dictionary. One or two of them - such as "dead ringer" - come directly from a famous internet spoof, "Life in the 1500s".

The book is sloppy in every way. Regardless of whether the explanation of a phrase's origin is broadly correct or not, many of the supporting "facts" are wrong; such as the statements that a pig's ear "cannot be eaten or used in any way" - an assertion that would startle peasant cooks from all over Europe - and that pigs are "sacred to Hindus" (!)

It's very odd that some of the "explanations" of phrases in this book don't actually explain them at all. The images evoked by phrases like "flogging a dead horse" or "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" exactly match what we mean when we say them; the stories in "Red Herrings and White Elephants" actually make much less sense. And yet people seem to prefer the far-fetched stories. Strange.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 18, 2006 01:51 PM