Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Review - Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends
by David Wilton. Oxford.
November 29, 2005GoHah
Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban LegendsDavid WiltonBook
When I became a Blogcritic and joined not just a garden-variety, standard issue cabal, but a "sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, politics and technology," I was very proud to be associated with five ministers of Charles II--Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, and Lauderdale. After all, these were men who not only defaulted on the national debt by closing the exchequer in 1670, but they also helped start a war with Holland in 1672 and entered into an alliance with the despised French in 1673. Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do . . .
Oh, wait. According to Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, by David Wilton, this particular use of "cabal" makes it a backronym (an acronym formed on an existing word) based on the first letter of each minister's name, and is wide of the etymological mark. It is actually predated by at least twenty-five years by its introduction into the English language from the French cabale, ultimately coming from the cabala, the medieval body of arcane and mystical Jewish teachings. Oh well, maybe I'll meet Madonna/Esther or some other trendoid celebrity red-stringing us along.
Anyway, I'm hoping to have good luck in selecting the right books, CDs, or movies to review, but I'm sure I'll get my share of crap. You know, "crap"--as it familiarly and supposedly originated from the English sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper, the guy who invented the flush toilet. Fun fact! Perhaps.
If that's the extent of your scatological knowledge, you don't know crap. Turns out that "crap" in its excremental sense is from the Old French, via Middle English, crappe, meaning husks of grain or chaff. The word ultimately comes from the Medieval Latin crappa. English use dates to the mid-fifteenth century. Over time, the meaning of the word evolved--to chaff, to refuse and leavings, and eventually to excrement. Not so fun fact but true!
I'd also like to stay away from books, music, and movies that at just okay--as in average, nothing special, too ubiquitous. "OK," Word Myths declares, "is the most successful of Americanisms." Tracing the derivative possibilities and permutations--such as the associations with presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Burnen, or the roots in a number of languages--Wilton concludes with ostensibly resolute finality that a certain scholar, the "Galahad" of our tale, "seemingly had found the Holy Grail of American etymology." Ok, then.
My personal Holy Grails lie in finding from time to time a work of art or entertainment that is "the real McCoy," the genuine article, the true thing. As you might imagine or have heard, the phrase stems from a namesake character, and there are many candidates for the real "real McCoy."
The most colorful of the possibilities is Norman Selby, a larger-than-life boxer who started fighting under the name Charles "Kid" McCoy in 1890; his career ended in 1916, not too long before his lover was found shot to death in their home. When Selby/McCoy wasn't in jail for such felonious misadventures, he was in the ring in a variety of theatrical guises, such as occurred when he faked illness in the weeks before a fight only to apparently rebound in the ring in peak form.
One of the stories about how "Kid McCoy" was dubbed "the real McCoy" concerns him getting into a fight with drunk who refuses to believe he is in a slugfest with the famous boxer. After the drunk quickly gets knocked down, he admits that he was indeed fighting "the real McCoy."
If you've ever been curious about the unabashed, unvarnished truth behind the accepted facts or legends, or would like to take on a little unconventional wisdom, Word Myths is a fun and informative way to go about it . Wilton will let the cat out of the bag about throwing the baby out with the bath water, chewing the fat, biting the wax tadpole, and what it really means when it is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. You'll get the whole nine yards, including a little presidential history about John Kennedy standing at the Berlin wall and announcing, "I am a jelly doughnut." No doubt about it--Word Myths is the real McCoy.


At 1:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

GoHa, I didn't realize you were from San Diego until 5 minutes ago. Howdy, neighbor!

Joanie, TV/Film Editor, Blogcritics - RB gal


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