Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Watch Out for Etymythology!

Say you're reading the "About Us" page on a company's website, and they tell a little story about how they came up with a common word long ago, perhaps as part of an early advertising campaign or in the creation of a consumer product. Should you believe the story? Don't count on it! That's the lesson of my latest On Language column in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, exploring the tricky terrain of corporate etymology — or rather, etymythology.

Etymythology is a nifty term invented by Larry Horn, a linguist at Yale University whom I've known ever since I was an undergrad. In a 2004 article in American Speech, Horn defined etymythology as "the lexical version of the urban legend, a fable — or more generously a piece of culturally based arcane wisdom — not transmitted by scholarly research but passed on by word of mouth (or computer)." Common etymythologies include derivations of words from bogus acronyms, such as cop = "Constable On Patrol," golf = "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden," posh = "Port Out Starboard Home," and tip = "To Insure Politeness" (or "Promptness"). Such acronymic explanations are almost invariably unsupported by historical evidence, but they make nice tales to tell.

The etymythologies told by companies about their products also take the shape of formulaic "just-so stories," with all the narrative appeal of Kipling recounting how the leopard got his spots. Keds recently claimed that they coined the word sneakers, but they were forced to backtrack on this after a Times reporter confronted them with examples of the word predating the founding of the company. I tackle (and debunk) a number of other corporate word myths in the On Language column, from Haggar's claim on slacks to Hershey's claim on kisses.

And there are many more where those came from. In the Boston Globe, language columnist Jan Freeman recently took Johnson & Johnson to task for saying that they came up with duck tape during World War II, and that after the war the adhesive came to be known as duct tape. But as Freeman explains, duck tape originally referred to a non-adhesive fashion tape in the early 20th century, and neither duck tape nor duct tape got used for the sticky stuff until decades after the war.

Companies often have a vested interest in making some sort of claim on a common word, especially if (as with the case of Hershey and kisses) a company is seeking trademark protection for that word. But the etymythologizers of the business world aren't really doing anything substantively different from what ordinary people do all the time when theorizing about, say, the origins of a mysterious expression like "the whole nine yards." Fanciful word lore gets passed around and sometimes gets accepted as the gospel truth. Companies like Keds, Haggar, and Hershey simply take that impulse to come up with lexical just-so stories and provide an institutional backing that encourages the myths to persist as a point of corporate pride.

For more on the realm of etymythology, I recommend two books: Dave Wilton's Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends and Michael Quinion's Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins (originally published in the UK as Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths). Also make sure to check out their online stomping grounds: Wilton at Wordorigins.org and Quinion at World Wide Words. Along with the language section of the premier urban-legend site Snopes.com, these are indispensable resources for seekers of etymological truth.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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