Debunking Etymological Myths


This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, Make her feel welcome!

Since I'm a language maven and all, readers sometimes ask me whether I blame the Internet for the decline in literacy. Absolutely not! The Internet, because it requires everybody to write, has simply revealed what lousy writers most people are. But the fact that they're writing is a very good thing.

The down side of the Internet is that it's chock-full of misinformation. Many of the websites devoted to words and phrase origins are hotbeds of mythology. Lots of the more popular myths pre-date the Internet, but technology has spread them to the farthest reaches of the English-speaking world. Too bad, because the truth about words is even more interesting than the myths. So let's explode a few.

1. "Caesarean."

Ask a roomful of people where the word "caesarean" comes from, and everyone will have the answer. Julius Caesar was born surgically, so the story goes, and that's why surgical births are called "caesareans." Well, fortunately for both Caesar and his mother, this isn't the answer.

In ancient times, surgical deliveries were performed only on women who were dead or dying. Back then, the child's survival was barely possible after such an operation, but not the unfortunate mother's (this was around 100 B.C., remember?). Yet Caesar's mother, Aurelia, survived his birth by at least 40 years, which would have been impossible if she'd delivered him by caesarean.

The likeliest source of our mystery word, "caesarean," is not the emperor but the Latin word caeso (from the verb caedere, meaning to cut). As for how the emperor's forebears got the cognomen "Caesar," nobody knows. One interesting theory comes from a Roman language whiz, Sextus Pompeius Festus, who thought the name came from the Latin word caesaries ("hair"). He suggested the first Caesar may have been born with a full head of hair.

The myth about Caesar is what's called a false eponym. (The word "eponym," by the way, comes from the Greek for "named after," and it means one for whom something is named.) Here's another one.

2. "Crapper."

No, my friends, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. There was such a man, and he was a plumbing magnate in 19th-century England (he even made and sold toilets), but his name is pure coincidence. Flush toilets preceded him.

Another popular claim is that Thomas Crapper's name is the source of the noun "crapper," slang for the device itself. According to this myth, American doughboys in England during World War I saw the name Crapper on toilets "over there" and brought the word home as a noun meaning "toilet."

The problem with this story is that the word was already in use in 1910, when it meant a lavatory or bathroom and not the fixture itself. The apparatus wasn't referred to as a "crapper" until 1938, long after the First World War. It's likely that any connection with Mr. Crapper himself is coincidental. Linguistically speaking, he's an innocent bystander.

3. "Jeep."

Myths are frustrating, because once they become entrenched in people's memories, they're very difficult to pry loose. "Jeep" is a good example. Many people believe, and many dictionaries will tell you, that it's a pronunciation of the initials GP, an abbreviation the Army used for its "general purpose" vehicles.

eugene-jeep.jpg /

Eugene was the Snoopy of his day. He was tremendously popular and was adopted as a sort of mascot by several government contractors and other corporations (including Halliburton, by the way) in the late 1930's.

When the Army introduced its small all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle in 1941, the little car was manufactured mainly by two big companies, Willys-Overland and Ford. It just happened that Ford, on its models, used the factory designation GP—G for "government contract" and P as a code for 80-inch wheelbase.

So GP was not an Army designation, it did not stand for "general purpose," and it was not the origin of the name "Jeep." When Willys-Overland unveiled its prototype, reporters wanted to know its name. The publicist said, "You can call it a Jeep." Willys changed hands over the years and now the trademark "Jeep" is owned by Chrysler.

4. "Snuck."

Here's a piece of news. English is a living language, and it changes. Many myths about words can be traced to the fact that the words evolved. No, contrary to popular opinion, they are not written in stone! Take the word "snuck," which has sneaked into common usage and even into dictionaries.

In formal written English, the generally accepted standard forms of the verb are "sneak," "sneaked," and "have sneaked." But "snuck," which cropped up as a nonstandard variant of "sneaked" in 19th-century America, has become so common over the years that dictionaries now accept it as standard English. If you don't believe me, check out Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) or The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Usage experts, who are more conservative than lexicographers, generally frown on it, so I wouldn't use it in formal writing. But currently "snuck" is used about as often as "sneaked," and seems likely to replace it eventually.

What many people don't like to accept about English is that in the end, correctness is determined by common practice.

5. "Whole Nine Yards."

Another thing some people just can't accept is that the origins of many common expressions will probably always remain a mystery. We know, for instance, what "the whole nine yards" means—the works, everything, the whole enchilada. But nobody knows where it comes from.

Before you offer the definitive etymology of the expression, let me say that I've heard it before. I've heard them all, and none of them are genuine. "The whole nine yards" is not a reference to ammunition clips used by gunners on World War II aircraft. It is not a seafaring phrase about the three yards—or long spars—on each of the three masts of a clipper ship. It has nothing to do with the amount of fabric required to make a burial shroud. And it's not about the capacity of a ready-mix concrete truck, either.

In fact, no one really knows how the phrase originated. All we know for sure is that it's an Americanism from the 1960s. Unfortunately, many linguists and writers (including me) have spent way too much time trying to track down its origin. All those theories I mentioned, from ammo belts to loads of cement, have been debunked. The British language sleuth Michael Quinion has also ruled out suggestions that the phrase comes from the fabric needed for a nun's habit, a three-piece suit, or a Scottish kilt; the capacity of a coal-ore wagon or a garbage truck; the length of a maharajah's sash or a hangman's noose; the distance between the cellblock and the outer wall of a prison, and any number of measurements having to do with sports.

We simply don't know—and may never know—where some words and expressions come from. But language lovers hate to take no for an answer. Maybe that's how myths are born.

Yesterday: Debunking Grammar Myths. Coming tomorrow: Five Lessons in Grammar. And on Friday, Pat will be answering your grammar questions. You can ask said questions in the comments.