Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins

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The cat's pajamas, the bee's knees, and the whole nine yards rolled into one, this true feast for word lovers skewers commonly accepted word-origin myths and etymological folk tales. Writing with flair and authority, word maven and OED contributor Michael Quinion shows us that the real story behind a word or phrase is often much stranger than the commonly accepted one. The many entries will certainly leave you "happy as a clam." But why are clams so happy? The phrase makes much more sense when paired with its missing second half: "at high water." Now a clam at high water is a safe clam, and thus a happy one. And can it really be true that "golf" stands for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden"? Or that a "wake" was so-called because the guests sat around to make sure the corpse didn't wake up? Did the term "computer bug" really come about because of an errant moth shorting out an early computer? Did the kangaroo really get its name through a misunderstanding between explorers and natives? A noted and indefatigable linguistic sleuth, Quinion gleefully sets the record straight on these and other bizarre tales of word origins. From the bawdy to the sublime, Quinion's explanations and delightful asides truly prove that the "proof is in the pudding." With this book in your arsenal, you'll have the last word in every word lover's game of one-upmanship. So if you ever wondered about why we utter such oddities as "raining cats and dogs," "I could care less," or "twenty-three skidoo," this one's for you. No ballyhoo!
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“When he is not busting myths, the author (who runs the World Wide Words Web site) offers up origins of words and phrases that most readers will probably have wondered about. . . . The book is simply organized—alphabetically, of course—and endlessly illuminating. Quinion's research and documentation are impeccable, and when he needs to make a leap of imagination, he does so gracefully. For word lovers, this book is indispensable.”—David Pitt, Booklist
Library Journal
Folk etymology, namely, stories describing word origins, takes the stage as Quinion narrates and evaluates competing explanations of a word's or phrase's evolution. A contributor to the venerable OED, Quinion offers amusing anecdotes, pieces of linguistic history, and a glimpse of how linguists judge evidence. Reveling in inventive, though inaccurate, word origin stories, Quinion writes in an accessible, humorous tone readers will appreciate. Regarding "dead as a doornail," Quinion mentions early use from Shakespeare and Vision of Piers Plowman, and later sums up discussion by referring to an explanation from carpentry, "I hold no candle for this idea, but it's more plausible than the other stories." Other works include some competing explanations, as well as offer less detail but more total entries, such as William Morris and Mary Morris's well-liked Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. Offering a unique focus on folk etymology, Quinion's work is recommended for academic and public libraries.-Marianne Orme, Des Plaines P.L., IL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588342195
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Publication date: 9/19/2004
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Quinion hosts and writes the World Wide Words Web site and is a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Read an Excerpt

OK is without doubt the best-known and widest-travelled Americanism, used and recognised even by people who hardly know another word of English. Running in parallel with its popularity have been many attempts to explain where it came from—amateur etymologists have been obsessed with OK and theories have bred unchecked for the past 150 years.

Suggestions abound of introductions from another language, including: from the Choctaw-Chickasaw okah meaning “it is indeed”; from a mishearing of the Scots och aye! (or perhaps Ulster Scots Ough aye!), “yes, indeed!”; from West African languages like Mandingo (O ke, “certainly”) or Wolof (waw kay, “yes indeed”); from Finnish oikea, “correct, exact”; from French au quais, “at the quay” (supposedly stencilled on Puerto Rican rum specially selected for export, or a place of assignation for French sailors in the Caribbean); or from French Aux Cayes (a port in Haiti famous for its superior rum). Such accidentally coincidental forms across languages are surprisingly common and all of these are certainly false. Many African-Americans would be delighted to have it proved that OK is actually from an African language brought to America by slaves, but the evidence is against them, as we shall shortly learn.

Some other theories I’ve seen mentioned: it comes from Old Keokuk, the name of a Native American Fox chief; from German Oberst Kommandant, “Colonel in Command”, because some German army officer fought on the colonists’ side in the American Revolution (names such as General Schliessen or Baron von Steuben are mentioned but cannot be linked to real individuals); from the name of a freight agent, Obadiah Kelly, whose initials often appeared on bills of lading; an abbreviation for Open Key, popularised by early telegraphers; or from the initials of Orrin Kendall biscuits supplied to the Union Army during the Civil War. A particularly persistent and long-standing theory says that President Andrew Jackson used to write OK to abbreviate the illiterate “ole korrek” on documents, a grievous calumny on a well-educated man. None of these theories can be supported with documented proof.

I could go on, but it would only strain your patience and fortitude as much as it would mine. The true story was researched by Professor Allen Walker Read in the 1960s. Let me give you the facts as he uncovered them through his assiduous reading of local newspapers.

He records that “beginning in the summer of 1838, there developed in Boston a remarkable vogue of using abbreviations. It might well be called a craze”. He quotes many examples, including RTBS, “Remains To Be Seen”, GTDHD, “Give The Devil His Due”, OFM, “Our First Men” (a satirical description of Boston’s leading citizens), and SP, “Small Potatoes” (for something considered to be of little importance).

Professor Read traced the earliest recorded use of OK to the Boston Morning Post of 23 March 1839, in a report about a “frolicsome group” called the Anti-Bell Ringing Society (the ABRS), which campaigned to get a law banning the ringing of dinner bells rescinded. It seems to have been short for “oll korrect”, a fanciful way of writing “all correct” that was itself part of another popular craze of the time for misspellings as a humorous device and which echoes the story about President Jackson from the previous decade.

What ensured that this one example survived out of many in a hugely popular but short-lived fashion was that it was picked up by the Democrats in New York. They created a body called the Democratic OK Club to support their candidate, Martin Van Buren, who was standing for re-election in the 1840 presidential election against William Henry Harrison. OK here actually stood for “Old Kinderhook”, Van Buren’s nickname, taken from Kinderhook, his birthplace near Albany in New York State. The abbreviation became widely used during the campaign and survived Van Buren’s losing the election.

However, its origins quickly became lost, as anything linked to yesterday’s news usually does. Many earnest investigators have since tried to resolve the issue. Despite the fact that we have known the true story for the past forty years, people still keep coming up with ingenious but mistaken theories.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Acknowledgments 9
Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds 11
Select Bibliography 273
Select Webliography 275
Index of Entries 277
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