and still they come [books of phrase origins]

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Sun Dec 18 01:32:27 UTC 2005

the market for books of phrase origins seems to inexhaustible.  most
of them have no scholarship whatsoever, just bald assertion.  and
many of the sources they propose are preposterous, or plausible-
sounding but clearly wrong.  (there are books that are honorable
exceptions, some by residents in this parish.) yet still they come.

the latest of these horrors to come to my attention is Albert Jack's
_Red Herring and White Elephants_ (HarperCollins, 2004).  no
references for its claims, and just opening pages at random i found
three appalling entries in as many minutes:

"mealy mouthed", Jack claims, derives from ancient greek "melimuthos"
'honey speak'.  there is no mention of meal (as in the OED), instead
this elaborate and strained loan-word account.

"fell swoop" Jack takes back to Shakespeare, claiming that once the
bard used the word "fell" in this phrase in the scottish tragedy, it
came to have the meaning 'evil'.  good grief, even without checking
the OED, i knew that "fell" 'evil' goes back to OE.

the "spill the beans" entry provides a charming story about voting
with beans in ancient greece.  against this is the OED's assertion
that the expression is originally u.s. slang and the fact that it has
no cites for it earlier than 1919 (from an american source, of course).

enough, enough.  it's a terrible book, by someone who doesn't seem to
know how to use dictionaries. we need a new genre category for
publications like this: etymological fantasy.

the one review on so far is rather more detailed, and even
more negative, than mine.  but then i spent only 15 minutes on mine,
mostly writing time; my reading time was blessedly brief.

Syntinen (SE England)

This book should carry a label saying "Warning - don't assume that
any of this is true". In the foreword the author portrays himself as
being inspired to write it when sitting in an olde English pub musing
on the oddness of English phrases. It reads as though it had been
researched in a pub as well; many of the "origins" given are exactly
the kind of thing you'd be told by some wiseacre leaning up against
the bar. To disprove some of them, such as "keeping danger at bay"
and "on the fiddle", wouldn't even take a reference library; you'd
only need to look up the words in a good dictionary. One or two of
them - such as "dead ringer" - come directly from a famous internet
spoof, "Life in the 1500s".

The book is sloppy in every way. Regardless of whether the
explanation of a phrase's origin is broadly correct or not, many of
the supporting "facts" are wrong; such as the statements that a pig's
ear "cannot be eaten or used in any way" - an assertion that would
startle peasant cooks from all over Europe - and that pigs are
"sacred to Hindus" (!)

It's very odd that some of the "explanations" of phrases in this book
don't actually explain them at all. The images evoked by phrases like
"flogging a dead horse" or "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours"
exactly match what we mean when we say them; the stories in "Red
Herrings and White Elephants" actually make much less sense. And yet
people seem to prefer the far-fetched stories. Strange.

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