Date: Tue, 9 Dec 1997 09:28:49 +0000

From: Jim Rader jrader[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]M-W.COM

Subject: Re: Morris's Word and Phrase Origins

My apologies--I got a little carried away. I meant to write--and

thought I had written--"is of value mainly as a collection of

etymology folklore," not "only as a collection of etymology

folklore." It's not that I have that low an opinion of the book--I

have recommended it on occasion to laypeople looking for entertaining

stories of word origins. The problem is that laypeople take these

entertaining but usually unsubstantiated or

impossible-to-substantiate stories as gospel. After churning out the

umpteenth letter of the year explaining why we cannot accept the

"port-out/starboard-home" etymology of posh --repeated in MDWPO--I

get hot under the collar and curse books of this ilk.

As an example of the sort of stuff I find offensive in MDWPO, let me

quote the article on glottochronology and lexicostatistics :

"Our candidates for this century's ugliest words are two:

lexicostatistics and glottochronology . And do you know who

coined them? Linguists, that's who--the very people who should be

concerned with maintaining minimum linguistic standards. These two

gems were coined to describe a technique by which some language

researchers claim to be able to "date" the age of a word, just as Dr.

Libby's carbon 14 method has successfully dated ancient artifacts."

First--why these two words should be considered "ugly" is beyond

me--they're no more sesquipedalian than thousands of other English

words formed from Greco-Latin elements. Second-- the swipe at

linguists is gratuitously anti-intellectual and gives laypeople a

false idea of what linguists do. Third--the characterization

of what lexicostatistics and glottochronology purport to do is wholly


Sorry, but this entry is drivel and is going to raise the hackles of any

linguist. I realize that some of the people on this list are not

"professionals" (whatever that means in this field, and the subject

of another current thread) and are going to look at this book

differently than I do. But I consider that all the more reason to

give a "professional" opinion when someone on the list cites a work

that I think is demonstrably flawed. Tallying its major and minor

inaccuracies would take up a lot of space.

Maybe there is a newer edition of the book that has remedied

some of its more egregious features (the copy at hand has a 1977

copyright). If so, I would be glad if someone would point that fact

out to me.

Jim Rader