Douglas G. Wilson
douglas at NB.NET
Sat Sep 13 20:06:47 UTC 2003
[Sorry, a number of list postings have failed to reach me. I'm responding
to the Web record of the list.]
J. Despres (I think): "There needs to be something more than plausibility
behind a hypothesis before the OED (or Merriam, or any reputable dictionary
publisher) takes it seriously."
I don't know that this is true.
[Whether it should be, to what degree, whether anybody should care, etc.
are questions open to discussion, I suppose.]
Just to take one example which I mentioned here a while ago: OED and M-W
inter alia give "putain" (French) as the ancestor of "poontang" ... some
with qualifications such as "probably" or "possibly".
I would say that presenting an etymology in in the dictionary at all --
even with "possibly" -- qualifies as "taking it seriously" (although that's
not the same as "accepting it fully").
But when a correspondent presented me with an alternative candidate
etymology, approximately or almost equal in superficial plausibility IMHO,
and I went to the books, I couldn't find any "smoking gun" documentation --
or even any primary documentation at all -- of the "putain" etymology ...
and the M-W and OED and other editors (who were so kind as to respond to me
on this list and otherwise) denied having any firm evidence at hand. I find
the favored etymology simply asserted (or quoted from privately
communicated assertion) in "American Speech" several decades ago without
any supporting documents or even any supporting reasoning. [BTW, I believe
there is room for considerable doubt on this one, although the favored
speculation is arguably at least as plausible as any of the several other
specific hypotheses which I can put forth.]
I'm sure there are thousands of other unsupported etymologies given in the
big dictionaries; this is just one which I've researched and considered
My own opinion FWLIW is that if a good guess is available it should be
presented in the dictionary (with "possibly" or "speculatively" or whatever
if appropriate); of course an editor must still decide what is good enough.
[IMHO the proposed Hindi origin of "choad" is a superficially poor guess,
unworthy of promulgation in absence of further evidence.]
-- Doug Wilson
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