Some paradigms never shift

“People will still say that when you ask them,” Dr. Rosenberg said. “Textbooks are full of it.” In a hundred years, I bet books will still be incorrectly explaining why ice is slippery.

This is how it works in the popular language trades, anyway. Terms that have solid, reliable, near-certain histories are still often accompanied in print by specious, spurious, and sophistic histories that nobody of any repute or authority does or could support.

A few books do a very good job of trying to propagate the correct word histories. Dave Wilton’s Word Myths (published by my employer) and Michael Quinion’s Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds (called Port Out, Starboard Home outside of the U.S.) are just two.

But they’re not enough. The old stories persist. Bad print sources are constantly taken as authoritative. People who issue only baloney are taken as authoritative. Crackpots come up with new, equally unprovable, theories.

One truly authoritative source was Allen Walker Read, who spent decades working out the origin of “OK” and other terms. Any language scholar who works with word histories—and some popular language writers—will instantly tell you that he nailed the origin of “OK” with the most certainty one could ever expect. But the demonstrably false etymologies persist now just as much as they did during Read’s lifetime.

In 1992, he wrote a letter to Professor Rowland Berthoff of Washington University in St. Louis. It responds to Berthoff’s charges that Read’s work on “OK” shows a 35-year gap and that no one called Martin Van Buren “Old Kinderhook,” and to the statement that he, Berthoff, preferred the Scots “Och, aye” as the origin of the term.

The whole of Read’s letter is worth reading (and is reprinted in full in Milestones in the History of English in America, which collects much, if not all, of Read’s work that appeared in the scholarly journal American Speech), but this particular passage has always struck me:

“In making such a statement you are a disgrace to your profession. Shame on you! Shame on you! We are dealing here with matters of historical fact, and your statement of ‘preference’ shows that you are either weak-minded or dishonest (or both)….

“Please do not think that I am being absolutistic in my outlook, for I believe that we live in a world of probabilities.”

The passage has admirable vigor, but most of all it supports evidence-based opinion while at the same time defending against any claims of perfect understanding. Read, in fact, seemed always willing to overturn his opinions in the light of new evidence.

Posted February 21, 2006

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