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Lies, damned lies, and etymologies
Tuesday, April 24, 2007   2:30 AM

The sorely-missed Tongue-Tied said it eloquently:

Among other valuable neurotic traits (like a sense of irritation, which helps you spot errors), copy editors have to cultivate a certain level of paranoia. It's productive to be irrationally suspicious of every sentence.

Many copy editors, testy and otherwise, seem to have come to much the same conclusion. I certainly remember a growing sense of satisfaction when I realized that my paranoia could actually be an asset.

Besides unfamiliar words (see: "On mispelling"), there are three things which I've attempted to cultivate a strong suspicion toward: names, idioms, and etymologies.

The first is easy to check, or at least was back when that was a big part of my job: all I had to do was search the campus directory or website. Idioms were harder, not so much because I couldn't find the recommended version as because replacing idioms like "chomping at the bit" and "hone in" with their less familiar counterparts often precipitated a minor philosophical crisis.

Then there were the etymologies.

I think we can all agree that if a piece of writing is making an etymological claim, the etymology should be correct. Other considerations — like whether the information is pertinent or whether it's appropriate to make an argument from etymology — can come later, because the dictionary is right there.

During some downtime, I once spent half an hour fixing a "nobody knows" etymology the writer had provided for the name of one of the school's less popular clubs, so that it instead specified the proper Elvish.

(I don't know a word of Elvish — my geek energy is directed elsewhere — but it always reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien's comment on the beauty of "cellar door," which also appears in a spectacularly dumbed-down form in the movie Donnie Darko.)

The interesting, plausible-sounding etymologies are always worth checking. I think I caught one or two back in the day, phony acronyms from what I remember, and at the campus bar I once got in a somewhat protracted argument over the origins of "call a spade a spade." Not the most ridiculously academic argument I've had there.

Anyways, what brought this all back to me was an article on "L'Enfant's Washington" by Francis Fukuyama, who's standing in today as our Donnie Don't. Emphasis added:

The area now known as Federal Triangle was then built in the 1930s in a separate project over what had been Washington's red light district. (The word "hooker" comes from the fact that Union General Joseph Hooker, who lost to Lee at Chancellorsville, liked to frequent brothels in this neighborhood.) Today, it is home to the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Where racily clad prostitutes used to congregate, dark-suited commuters now queue at slug lines for rides back to the Virginia suburbs.

This fascinating word origin story is easily debunked, and yet it slipped through because Fukuyama (and presumably a copy editor and one or two other readers) didn't bother to check it. Never trust a pretty etymology.

It's all about the paranoia. And if you're paranoid enough, it can be just as satisfying to find out that an etymology is really true: I listened to an old John Ciardi "On Words" podcast today and was surprised to learn that margarita apparently comes from a Spanish name that can also mean "daisy."

Since the inventor of the margarita is still disputed and I have no OED access, I can only give Ciardi the benefit of the doubt, but his theory was that the salt around the rim represented the white petals of the flower.

This is the kind of thing I love discovering about English. I'd like to think that when I'm checking an etymology it's win-win: either I catch a factual error, or I discover something new about the language.

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"< Spanish Margarita, a female forename < post-classical Latin Margarita (see MARGARET n.).

The reason for the application of the name in either sense is unclear, and does not appear to follow any such use in Spanish. The uses recorded at sense 1 could perhaps reflect brand names. The cocktail name is variously attributed, with suggested origins in Mexico, California, or elsewhere in North America, and is commonly assigned to the 1930s or 1940s."

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