Date: Fri, 12 Dec 1997 12:20:20 -0500
From: Evan Morris words1[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]WORD-DETECTIVE.COM
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
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
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.
words1[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]word-detective.com