austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Sinking deep into the well of time

The problem with figuring out origins of words and phrases is any word-origin story you hear is wrong. The only word-origin stories too stupid to be generally accepted are the true ones, and most of the true ones are based on the laziest insult possible. ``Look at those people trying to carpen there! We're going to call them ... '' you'd hear all over 14th century England. And then Geoffrey Chaucer took a whole War of the Roses to figure out they should call those people ``carpenters''. It was a tough time and over a half-century too soon.

It's not clear why people will take nonsense claims and ignore the dreary truth that most non-insult words come from a mine outside Jáchymov, Bohemia. Probably it's a side-effect of an experiment by information theoretician Claude Shannon, who had finished his research into tiny unicycle riding, to try creating a statement so obviously and overwhelmingly sarcastic that it would be recognized as such more than ninety percent of the time (one ``duh'').

We nearly had a statement exceed 940 milli-duhs by the early 90s, but since the introduction of the Internet as a mass media to the masses and the kind words the masses had back for it we've had a precipitous collapse in the ability to recognize sarcasm as sarcasm. Today many content providers insist on sarcastic statements being preceded by three people waving red flags, waving lanterns, and proclaiming that ``sarcasm is about to be transmitted'', and following it up with two elephants and a street sweeper from a baffling 1920s comic strip, and even then the non-recognition rate runs about forty percent.

So if you want to know where a word comes from, there's no chance of learning, for example, the word ``about'' was invented by a sports writer for the 1979 baseball All-Star Game, or convincing anyone if you did know. But there's a good side, which is if you want to make up a word origin story you're in luck. Get it wrong and it'll catch on; for example:

``You know the expression `pressing the flesh'? It turns out it's a mistake.''

``I used to know it, but interacted rarely with it. I'm not surprised it's a mistake; it always seemed obnoxious.''

``Right, but it's a corruption of the original, `pressing the fish'.''

``Why would you talk about pressing a fish often enough to need an expression about it?''

``You'd need it to get in good with an otter. If you pressed the fish into the otter's vicinity you'd have a friend.''

``You'd have a drooling otter. Maybe a bitey one.''

``But if you did that a lot --- ''

``You'd get a lot of otter drool. More than otters need even.''

``And if you were talking about this to people who didn't have anything to do with otters and they heard you wrong ---''

``They'd want to know why you're gathering otter drool. I'd worry if I saw something hoarding the stuff, but I wouldn't ask about it. I'd run the opposite direction at the same time.''

``And that's why people would talk about pressing the fish rarely enough that when they have to start talking about it again they'll be rusty.''

``No, they wouldn't get rusty if they've been away from the otter ponds that long. Too dry. I might scream a little.''

``Scream? At what?''

``At the otter-drool-gatherer. Were you not paying attention? What's your reaction to people who act like that?''

Well, that's gone wrong. I suspect someone in that dialogue to be agents for a team of etymologists still seeking vengeance against Noah Webster for his spelling reforms leaving everybody vaguely unsure about the correct way to pronounce ``dour''. You can't underestimate their need for revenge. So if you want to live in fear of etymologist revenge squads showing up at your door once they've tracked down why people think the word ``sinister'' has something to do with left-handedness and therefore must be mentioned whenever someone online mentions right- or left-handedness as though it were a joke, then go for it. How else are you going to get their interest?

Trivia: The words ``yoga'', ``yoke'', ``jugular'', ``conjugal'', ``joust'', ``junction'', ``juxtapose'', ``zygote'', and ``join'' are all descendants of the same Indo-European root meaning ``to join'', in is simplest form written ``yug-''. Source: Webster's Dictionary Of Word Origins, Editor Frederick C Mish.

Currently Reading: Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind The Baseball Legend, Monica Nucciarone.

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