Wuss; Clothes horse

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Wed Feb 2 02:00:44 UTC 2000

On Tue, 1 Feb 2000, Dennis R. Preston wrote:

> This is a funny attitude. First, nearly every lexicographer I know admits
> that the first written citation is doubtless "years" after a word came into
> currency. Second, as other list-members have hinte at, although colorful
> coloring is doubtless true of much of what we all report, this attitude
> across the board would surely play hell with all oral history. Do you mean
> to junk the whole slew?

The average item of slang vocabulary probably exists for some years,
perhaps for decades, before it appears in print.  The word "wuss" may well
have been used in the 1960s, although I doubt that it was in common usage
before the late 1970s (the earliest known citation, referring to 1979
usage, treats it as fresh as of that time, alert collectors of slang
didn't pick it up in the 60s or 70s, as pointed out by Barry Popik, and
the large Nexis database has no trace of it until 1984).

My point was not that all the people who claim to remember "wuss" from the
1960s are wrong, but rather that they may be wrong, that recollections of
this sort are notoriously unreliable, and that the whole area of etymology
is so plagued by folk-errors and gullibility and self-delusion that, if
one assumed that all popular etymological stories were false, one would
rarely go wrong.  In the end, printed citations, or reliable recollections
weighed by a talented student of slang such as Jonathan Lighter, are the
only real guide through the wilderness of misinformation.

Oral history has its uses, but it's pretty problematic in etymological and
other similar studies.

Fred R. Shapiro                             Coeditor (with Jane Garry)
Associate Librarian for Public Services     TRIAL AND ERROR: AN OXFORD
  and Lecturer in Legal Research            ANTHOLOGY OF LEGAL STORIES
Yale Law School                             Oxford University Press, 1998
e-mail: fred.shapiro at yale.edu               ISBN 0-19-509547-2

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