Date: Tue, 8 Apr 1997 19:44:39 -0400
From: Leslie Dunkling 106407.3560[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]COMPUSERVE.COM
Subject: Etymologizing

Mark Mandel asks whether `anyone ever tried to explain this general
phenomenon' (of preferring fanciful etymologies to factual ones).

I don't know whether Ernest Weekley is known in the States. He was
professor of French at Nottingham University when D.H.Lawrence was a
student there. Lawrence eloped with his wife, but that's another story. In
his own right, Professor Weekley was a philologist of the highest order,
compiler of an _Etymological Dictionary of Modern English_, author of
several popular books about words and names. He used to fume about letters
in newspapers which gave fanciful explanations of word-origins based on
guess-work. He could not explain the phenomenon, but he was equally puzzled
by it, and when you read what he has to say about it you can picture him
tearing his hair.

Sample quotes from a chapter in his _Words and Names_, entitled "Our
Lunatic Contributor":

"To the student there is something almost awe-inspiring in the martial
impatience with which the amateur cuts the Gordian knots of etymology..."

"The question naturally suggests itself - who invents all these futilities?
Is there some secret factory where half-wits are set to work by the
Moriarty of a gang engaged in uttering etymological fictions, or do the
writers of these letters evolve their anecdotes from their own inner
consciousness? Is it a complex, or an inhibition, or a morbid libido, or
what, in the name of Grimm's law, is it?"

It is still a popular pastime in Britain to come up with ingenious
explanations of pub names. Thus, Bag o' Nails (originally a pub frequented
by carpenters) is said to be a corruption of Bacchanalia; the Elephant and
Castle (from the elephant and howdah on the crest of the Cutler's Company)
is supposedly a reference to the Infanta de Castile.

Other names are explained in similar fashion - Cold Harbour is from French,
col d'arbres. Perhaps it was the same francophile etymologist who
discovered that Shakespeare was a corruption of Jacques-Pierre. The
interesting thing is that once these stories get into circulation it seems
to be impossible to withdraw them. As far as most people are concerned,
truth may be stranger than fiction but it still isn't as interesting.