Friday, March 2, 2012

On the origin of vocab

From the number of words for snow to the source of 'OK', popular etymology is crowded with myths

Kate Bush's latest album, Fifty Words for Snow, touches many popular nerves, but few so sensitive as our attachment to language myths.

The thing about language – English, or any other – is that, as native speakers, we are all expert, from birth. In one sense, we are all equally experienced in it. This gives us the right to hold forth.

Let us begin with the myth contained in Bush's album title. The notion that the Inuit language has 50 words for snow, which has been kicking around for years, has latterly been labelled the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax; in fact, as many commentators have pointed out, English, which is famously rich in synonyms, has just as many ways as Inuit to describe the white stuff.

Another vocabulary/language myth, which will prop up any bar you care to think of, is that Shakespeare had the biggest personal lexicon in English literature (estimates vary, but tend to range between 25,000 and 32,000 words). Not true. Milton, Bacon and Jonson exhibit a range of vocabulary every bit as innovative and voluminous as the Bard, whoever he might have been (Marlowe, Oxford, or even Bacon himself).

Either way, though, Shakespeare was certainly a coiner of "fire-new words" – and the origins and histories of words rarely fail to stir controversy. Almost everyone loves to debate the sources of language. At the end of last year, Mark Forsyth, author of the Inky Fool blog, had a Christmassy hardback hit with The Etymologicon. Having attributed this word to Milton, he proceeded to riff very entertainingly on the hidden connections of words (from brackets and codpieces, to cappuccinos and monkeys).

One of my favourite, and universal, English words, hoary with myth, is Okay. People have written whole books about this. In the saloon bar of language debate, you will confidently be told that – no question – "OK" has this, or that, transatlantic source.

Language myth tells us that it's from railroad freight agent Obadiah Kelly, or Indian chief Old Keokuk, who signed treaties OK, or an English farm word hoacky, meaning the last load of the harvest. Or … you name it, there's a theory.

The great linguistic scholar Allen Walker Read nailed OK down to the 1840 US presidential election when "OK" became the party slogan of "Old Kinderhook", Martin van Buren, who eventually lost to William Henry Harrison - but that's not conclusive, of course. I still hanker for an "OK" that's derived from the African word, wukay.

And if you think this is contentious, look up the origins of "marmalade". Even Kate Bush might hesitate before putting that into a song title.

McCrum, Robert. 2012. "On the origin of vocab". The Guardian. Posted: February 9, 2012. Available online:

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