Gregory {Greg} Downing gd2 at NYU.EDU
Mon Mar 5 21:34:02 UTC 2001

At 10:09 AM 3/5/2001 +0800, Larry Horn wrote:
>At 9:14 PM -0600 3/4/01, Gerald Cohen wrote:
>>I had often heard this word used in an expression to describe someone
>>as overly timid: "He wouldn't say boo to a ghost." I suppose the
>>original idea was that if you say "boo" to a ghost, the ghost would
>>become frightened and disappear. Then by shortening; "He wouldn't say
>Could be.  This would then involve the same loss of transparency we
>have in "happy as a clam", orig. "happy as a clam at high tide".

Which is not an uncommon path to etymological opacity, and therefore tends
to open the door to constructed pseudo-etymologies, as we've seen. For
example, OED's etymological note on "canard" says:

"Littré says Canard for a silly story comes from the old expression `vendre
un canard à moitié' (to half-sell a duck), in which à moitié was
subsequently suppressed."

The etymological note then goes on to mention an anecdote purporting to
explain the origin of stand-alone "canard" that gained great currency and
helped popularize use of the word in the sense of "false story" -- despite
the story's seeming status as a canard itself....

Greg Downing, at greg.downing at or gd2 at

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