The route to roots

I’ve always loved exploring the world of words, maybe because I had a facility for them, but I never thought it was a big deal. See, Way Back Then, such a thing wasn’t rewarded, much less even acknowledged.

If you were a musical adept, a math or science whiz, a great jock, a real looker or the life of the party, everyone knew it. If, on the other hand, you loved reading and writing and were good at them, you were a mere bit player in The Great Public School Theater — if you weren’t unnoticed background scenery. Thus I and my lexophilia were hidden in plain sight, as it were.

That said, I had some days of basking in the verbal sunlight.

One was Mrs. Wilson’s seventh- and eighth-grade English classes. She was a pedagogical martinet who ran her class like a boot camp. She was also a great teacher with a vitriolic wit, and I’m delighted to say I thrived under her lessons and lash.

The next year I had Mrs. Parsons for English. She was a quirky old gal who loved reading and writing and communicated that love in everything she did. While some kids had a hard time with her, she and I got along famously — perhaps because she recognized a fellow kindred/quirky soul.

Her first assignment was a dictionary project. It was a beast for a ninth-grade mind, in that it involved studying and then explaining all parts of a dictionary entry, from pronunciation guides to parts of speech, definitions, and related words and their origins.

And it was with those words’ origins that my fascination with etymology began.

Etymology is from the Greek roots for “the study of the sense of truth.” Or in plain English, it’s the study of words’ origins and their evolution. While it’s not the dictionary’s main job to explain those origins in depth, they give a reference to it, and that’s how I got hooked.

From what I’d gleaned from popular opinion, most English was derived from Latin, but I found out that wasn’t true. While having a lot of Romance language loan words, English is primarily a Germanic language. There are also words from many other languages as well. In America, for example, we picked up Native words for our flora and fauna.

For example, raccoon come from the Algonquin “he who scratches with hands.” Likewise, moose means “he strips off,” referring to the bark on trees.

Chipmunk — atchitamon — “one who descends headlong from trees.”

Then there are plants. Potato is from Carib, batota. Squash is from askutasquash — “the green things that can be eaten raw.” Maize is from Arawakan, mahiz. And saving the best for last, cocoa is from Nahuatl, cacahuatl. Chocolate is from the same language, cocolatl — “food made from cocoa seeds.” And if the Nahua peoples said it was a food, that’s good enough for me.

Vox populi

The more I looked up word origins, the more I found out, but it was an uphill battle all the way. Before the internet and without access to specialized texts, I had to scrounge word and phrase origins from what I could find at hand, almost all of which was in the school and town library. But scrounge I did.

So finding out word and phrase origins became my main hobby. But I never defined it as such because no one else did. As for the accepted ones? Stamp, coin, insect and butterfly collecting? Sure. Making ship and airplane models? Of course. Archery and target shooting? Absolutely. Etymology? Whazzat?

Due to lack of scholarly works, I learned a lot of origins from word of mouth, from this person or that. Unfortunately, most of the origins were what’s called “folk etymologies.” That is, they were commonly known and believed, and they were also wrong. “Posh” is a perfect example.

The folk etymology said it originated with British colonials going to Africa or India by ship. Posh was an acronym. In this case, it stood for Port Out, Starboard Home. Supposedly, those were the cooler sides of the ship on their respective directions. It’s a wonderfully entertaining explanation … and total bumpf.

Instead, while not proven, it’s thought to derive from English slang, “posh” for a dandy. Interestingly, its first recorded use was in 1903, in a piece by one of the language’s greatest and funniest craftsmen, P.G. Wodehouse. Though he used it in the same context as we’d use posh, he spelled it push.

From learning the actual origin of “posh,” I also learned a vital lesson about etymologies in general — namely, they are almost always straightforward and clear. The more complicated the explanation, the less chance it’s accurate. Any time you look up word origins, keep your etymology book in hand … and Occam’s razor in mind.

Seide Note: If want your own etymology book, there’s no better one to start with than “Devious Derivations” by Hugh Rawson. It’s loaded with all kinds of interesting material, it’s scholarly but fun to read, and it has a great bibliography. Plus, you won’t have to raid your piggy bank to buy a copy.

The wide world over

According to Bill Bryson, only two words are universally known. They are Coca-Cola and OK. Coca-Cola’s roots are easy to discover; OK took a long, long time, mostly because the folk etymology held greater sway.

Among the most popular explanations, numero uno was it stood for Old Kinderhook, the nickname of Martin Van Buren, since Kinderhook was HHT (His Home Town). Certainly, that sobriquet was used extensively in his 1840 run for president.

Another explanation involved Andrew Jackson, who supposedly had used it on documents. According to legend, he was trying to write “all correct,” but given his orthographic limitations, he wrote it as “ole kurrek,” or “oll korrect.” This was used by his political adversaries to illustrate his lack of formal education, and thus his lack of fitness for the office of president.

Third in line was it came from a Choctaw word “hoke” or “okeh,” meaning, “It is so.” Woodrow Wilson signed “okeh” on documents, to show his approval of the text. He would not, however, use “OK” because he claimed that spelling was wrong. As it turns out, that version is correct, and ole WW was wrong. It was neither the first nor last time a president had no idea what he was talking about.

At long last …

A scholar named Allen Walker Read from Columbia University did a whole lot of digging before he found out OK’s true origin, which I think is the most entertaining version as well.

Originally, Read agreed with the Old Kinderhook theory. But then, upon further exploration, he found an 1839 example in Boston’s Morning Post, written by its editor, Charles Gordon Greene, which had nothing to do with Van Buren or anything political. In fact, it had nothing to do with anything but having fun with words.

It seems, at that time in the U.S., word play was widespread, and puns, acronyms, misspellings and mispronunciations were popular. And thus it is with OK, which was written by Greene as the intentional misspelling, “Oll Korrect.”

This might seem like a far-out explanation if it weren’t for other intentional misspellings found in abundance then, such as KG (for Know Good), OW (for Oll Wright), and KY (for Know Yuse). Other initialisms that survived from then and which are still in popular use are NG and PDQ.

Last week I wrote about the arbitrary nature of English spelling and how, even though a bunch of pedagogical putzes still think correct spelling is important, ultimately it is not. As a result, generations of poor spellers have been embarrassed, if not traumatized, by their misspellings.

But now I tell all of them to take heart and consider this:

If an intentional misspelling could become the most popular word in the world, there’s always a chance one of your UN-intentional ones could become just as popular.

We kin only weight and sea.


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