“Popular etymologies are apocryphal” is the lead caption of an article I found in the latest edition of The Economist. The article looks at the origins of some of our widely accepted explanations for the origins of words we use; many of these explanations turn out to be myths. They are, however, often entertaining.
The author of the article concludes that we don’t need to make up fanciful explanations because the real origins are, in general, just as entertaining.
Popular etymologies include the purported origins of words like “salary” and “crap”.
Salary is said to have come from the Latin word for salt, because Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt. The fact that the average Roman soldier would have had to receive 6.6 kilos of salt as a daily salary, at the values of salt and salaries at the time, would seem to be a myth for purely practical reason; weight. Also, if they had consumed 6.6 kilos of salt a day, the Roman Army would have collapsed from hypertension long before they had conquered the known world.
The word “crap” reputedly comes from Thomas Crapper, the Englishman who invented the modern toilet. However, the word was part of the English language before he was born.
Peter Gainsford, a classicist from New Zealand, has compiled a study of popular etymologies, and their more realistic historical explanations. He describes some of the more entertaining popular etymologies as “folk etymologies; pleasing and memorable Just-So stories.”
Gainsford also delves into acronymic origins of common words, and the stories surrounding them. “Fornication Under the Consent of the King” is one, as is “Ship High in Transit”. However, both of these words were popular long before acronyms were in common use, these sources are debatable.
I have always been told that the word “POSH” comes from British colonial times when colonial administrators and army officers were transported to India by ship. A cabin on the cooler side of the ship was preferable in tropical climes, and the higher your rank the more likely you were to be assigned to that side. Hence, “Port Out, Starboard Home” became “POSH”. Gainsford maintains this to be a myth.
On a more personal level, I once made up a story for the first Robert Burns Supper I ever attended. I was advised that guests were expected to stand up and propose a toast on anything they felt like. I did a little research and discovered that the Germanic root of the words “toast” and “roast” were the same. I used this simple fact to make up a story about a Roman centurion, who had returned to Rome with a Germanic slave. In those days, wine was pretty raw stuff and contained all sorts of impurities that made the taste bitter. If you roasted the wine, it drove off many of those impurities, and the wine tasted better. The centurion had a special party and wanted to serve good wine, so he told his new slave from Gaul to roast the wine. The newly arrived slave misunderstood and put “toast” into the wine. The centurion was amazed, and pleased, at the reception of his wine and he asked the slave what he had done. The punch-line to my totally fabricated story was: That’s the reason we raise our glasses when we give a toast….is to make sure there is no toast left in the bottom. I have to wonder how many other myths of popular etymologies originated in a similar way.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology contains the origins of 38,000 words, so there is a lot to play with, and make up stories about.
One acronym story that I know is true is the word “Snafu”; it comes from the U.S. Army in World War II – “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.”
I understand that academic studies and meticulous research are important when investigating the origins of our languages and the changing interpretations of their words over time. However, I also think it would be a great loss to our culture not to retain some of the more fanciful stories that surround popular etymologies. No-one ordained that we can’t have both.