Date: Fri, 12 Dec 1997 12:20:20 -0500


Subject: Re: Morris's Word and Phrase Origins

At 09:28 AM 12/9/97 +0000, Jim Rader wrote:

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.

Arrghh. I know. The "posh" entry is mortifying, and there are many others

that are either flat-out wrong or incomplete and/or misleading. I

mentioned "posh" in particular to my father before his death a few years

ago, and he suggested that this (and others) might be fixed in a subsequent

edition (which would be my responsibility, he added gleefully).

Unfortunately, I cannot embark on a revision of the book without the legal

cooperation of my five siblings, one of whom is uncooperative, to put it

very mildly. I am hoping to clear the way for a revision in the near (but

not immediate) future.

I, too, am mildly surprised that the book is still in print, but perhaps

less so because I also know it still sells quite well and produces very

respectable royalties.

I think it does have its strengths -- a cheerful, conversational tone,

broad coverage, the inclusion of many unusual folk terms and phrases, lots

of amusing anecdotes, etc. I also believe that it is, at over 600 pages,

by far more often accurate than not. I do think that there is a place for

entertaining word origin stories aimed at the general reader -- the same

audience that has made the newspaper column on which the book is based so

popular for the past 45 years.

But, to be honest, given the flaws in the current incarnation of MDWPO, I

tend to recommend the M-W book of word origins to people who ask for a

starting point.

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


Again, this entry is simply mortifying, and I agree with all your points.

I'm afraid that I have discovered that I have profound differences with my

parents on a number of issues (especially their prescriptivism and

antiscientific bias, both of which show in the above entry). I do think

that MDWPO (as opposed to their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage,

now (mercifully) out of print) is largely free of anti-intellectual prejudice.


Evan Morris