Sunday, October 16, 2011

Etymology At Dawn

A witty etymology site Bradshaw of the Future, has a negative eval of Ryan and Jetha's Sex At Dawn: the Prehistory Origins of Modern Sexuality. The book quotes a non-expert on his opinion of how much American slang comes from African languages, such as boogie coming from mbugi, a Ki-Kongo word for "devilishly good." These just-so stories of where words come from pop up all the time, and they usually have about as much value as the urban legends of where phrases like "rule of thumb" or "get your goat" come from. He goes on to mention another bad example, Daniel Cassidy's "There's a Sach Ur Born Every Minute," which I also wrote about with some irritation in 2007. Short version: A clever person can easily make up a plausible-sounding etymology. The trick is to find evidence in the historical record that the word did develop the way you claim it does.

The blogger is annoyed that the authors of a (reportedly) well-researched book would quote something so tenuous so readily, when a relatively modest investment of time could fact-check it. That reminded me of Bill James's irritation with David Halberstam's getting the facts wrong in Summer of '49, which I also commented on about the same time. James wonders if DH's Vietnam reporting was as sloppy. I have since learned that it's even worse. Halberstam's main source for his writing was a North Vietnamese spy.

The internet: fact-checking your ass for years.  If you want to be credible in the difficult things, you must prove trustworthy on the simple ones.

I ran across Bradshaw of the Future through an older post, about the etymology of "checkmate."

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