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Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends
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Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends

3.27 of 5 stars 3.27  ·  rating details  ·  206 ratings  ·  34 reviews
Do you believe that Ring Around the Rosie refers to the Black Death? Or that Eskimos have 50 (or 500) words for "snow"? Or that "Posh" is an acronym for "Port Out, Starboard Home"? If so, you badly need this book. In Word Myths, David Wilton debunks some of the most spectacularly wrong word histories in common usage, giving us the real stories behind many linguistic urban ...more
Paperback, 221 pages
Published 2004 by Oxford University Press
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Crystal Starr Light
Did you hear the one about "Ring around the Rosie"? How it's about the Black Plague. Only, that's not entirely accurate as Wilton shows in "Word Myths". He spends some time taking apart words and phrases that have acquired histories, which upon closer look are more myth than fact.

I saw this pop up in my Goodreads feed from one of my friends and thought it sounded interesting. I picked up a used copy from my local independent bookstore and threw it in the carry-on for my flight. I have been on a
...more
David
The scholarship seems solid, but the presentation is surprisingly dull. Here is an outline:

* Debunking the big boys: ring around the rosie, OK, the whole nine yards, rule of thumb, hot dog, windy city, eskimo words for snow, elizabethan english in the appalachians
* The Elizabethan e-mail hoax
* Faux-acronyms (POSH, GOLF etc.)
* False nautical etymologies (CANOE - the conspiracy to attribute nautical origins to everything)
* Vulgar stuff: hookers, harlots, condoms, crappers, pumpernickel
* Political
...more
Crazy Uncle Ryan
Dec 28, 2007 Crazy Uncle Ryan rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anybody
Shelves: linguistics
I majored in Linguistics in college. It has always amazed me how gullible people can be when it comes to language. When someone gets an e-mail promising some incredible stock tip or anatomical enhancement they will automatically dismiss it as ridiculous and delete it. However, when that same person gets an e-mail or is told a story by a friend that purports some crazy fairytale about where a word or phrase comes from they seem to instantly believe it. This book does a great job of debunking many ...more
Caitlin
Mar 22, 2011 Caitlin rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those with an interest in linguistics or linguistic anthropology.
Shelves: non-fiction
The content of this book, I would rate as a four; the quality of writing is a two.

The writer really should have used a good ghostwriter for this one. I'm guessing that he wanted to sound authoritative to his readership (thus able to win their trust when he debunks these very well believed legends). He really missed the point that writing the book is enough for half the population to blindly follow your every word (which should have been blatantly obvious considering some of his research), and t
...more
Jennifer


I think the book does little to actually debunk any linguistic urban legends. In almost every case, the author's conclusion is that no one really knows how such-and-such word came about; we just know that the commonly related story is untrue. It should be apparent to anyone that in the absence of strong evidence for alternate etymology, the common story will persist. Also, the manner in which the various popular explanations are presented does more to reinforce them in the reader's mind than hi
...more
Melanti
A little dry, but fun nonetheless.

There is more debunking incorrect etymologies than proving true ones, but that is to be expected from the title and description.

It seems a bit dry for a book aimed at the laity but not nearly scholarly enough for something aimed at a professional audience. But it does contain citations, which is refreshing since they're often left out for "pop culture" type books.
Tiffany
Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Or in the newspaper. Or in your textbooks.

This book was quite interesting. Much of it made me feel hopelessly stupid, but that was probably a good thing -- I was unlearning some things that I never should have learned to begin with, such as the supposed fact that the Inuit have 500 different words for snow.

My main problem with this book as a book is: Where was this guy's copy editor? Hello, commas? And his word usage was all wrong in some plac
...more
David
It's been awhile since I've read a book about stuff like grammar and linguistics, but this seemed like it would be a nice, fun title to dig into.

So lets talk about the positives. First - this is a really accessible book for just about anybody. If you are curious as to where certain words and expressions DID come from (mostly DID NOT) it is worth checking out.

The tone is pretty light and upbeat. Very often books like this can come across as exceptionally dry. Wilton does a really good job keeping
...more
Angela
Did you ever think that "Ring Around the Rosie" makes reference to the Black Death of the Middle Ages? Or that "the whole nine yards" refers to the length of a machine gun's ammo belt on a WWII fighter plane? Or perhaps that Eskimos have 500 words for snow? If so, then you have been taken in by a linguistic urban legend. Like classic urban legends, these linguistic legends are popular and pervasive. But instead of propagating cautionary tales about the dangers of modern life, linguistic urban fo ...more
Angela
Most of the book was fairly interesting, but nothing amazing. Wilton spent most of time debunking the legends, and very little time on what I wanted most to know - where those words/phrases actually DID come from. Most often, the answer was, "The legend is probably wrong - we can't prove that it's correct, in any case... but we don't actually know where the phrase comes from, anyway." That was rather disappointing.

Also, I was annoyed that he spent long sections on the etymology of various swear
...more
William Wenge-Murphy
Dry but interesting (if you're into that sort of thing)
Cynthia
Great book on setting straight many urban legends on word origins, and other mis-uses of language. It's a large collection of short essays on many popular word myths such as Eskimos have 500 words for snow, Ring-a-Round-a-Rosie and many other things that turn out to be more about stories people like to tell than actual truths.

It's a good book, great to read in short stretches. Any more than that and I might get tired of it.
Dianne Landry
This had the potential to be an interesting and educational book, had it investigated these word myths with humour. Instead it is written like a textbook and just one big yawnfest. I skimmed over and any words or phrases I thought might be interesting I read but it was a waste of time. Somehow this author managed to make the origins of the word shit dull and you know that word is justbegging for fun to be made of it.
Cheal
Dry. The cover of this book is the most fun you'll have, unfortunately, but don't let that turn you off entirely if you're truly interested in debunking etymology myths. There are some great facts in this books and I feel better educated in a subject I am casually interested in for having read it. I did find myself skimming quite a bit, though, the further I got into it.
Aaron
Starts off interesting, but eventually grows boring, as he shoots down word-myth after word-myth using essentially the same argument each time -- the word appears in the record before the story in the myth allegedly took place. Even more disappointing is the realization that over half of his citations are to the Oxford English Dictionary, which seems rather lazy.
Kelsey Jo
With a passion for linguistics, this was a book I was very excited to read and wasn't disappointed when I did. Learning about the various sayings we use on a daily basis but have no idea where they came from was great! Wilton isn't afraid to say "I don't know," a characteristic to be admired. Very interesting.
BoekenTrol
Sep 13, 2012 BoekenTrol marked it as not_read_only_released  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: noname-blue
Recommended to BoekenTrol by: Vasha
I kept this book for a while, hoping to be able to read it before sending it on.
I did not have the time for it yet and I will not be able to read it anytime soon. So, to fulfill the last part of my 1001-RABCK for Vasha, this book is going on to the next reader.
Cami
While this had a lot of interesting information (the chapter on debunking the Elizabethan Age Email was my favorite), what this book mostly did is tell you where language ledgends didn't come from.
I think a person could take it or leave it. I shoulda left it.
Liana
Awful book. Poorly researched, badly written, devoid of any scholarly merit. Maybe, if you absolutely must read something for a couple of minutes in the bathroom, read this. Otherwise, don't waste the money or the energy.
Eric
Not only are the debunked myths amusing, but the true stories are often quite fun, too. On top of that, it has a few insights on legend formation and general etymology techniques.
Jen
I really liked this book, and thought it was well-researched and written. Some of the myths I have heard before, some I hadn't, and some were myths I had told my Spanish students!
Priscilla
Not one of those you'd want to sit down and read cover to cover, but very useful for leaving in the bathroom so you've got something to do while drying your hair.
Jesse
This is a spoil-sports game, but this author does a decent job of deflating the balloon without ruining the party. I feel slightly smarter after reading this.
Sarah
As with most books of this ilk that I read, the content was interesting but the writing didn't thrill me. It was surprisingly dull.
Pancha
The book doesn't go into great depth for each entry, but it includes the pertinent information in an entertaining manner.
Tori
2012- I've certainly read better "word origin" books before, but this one did debunk some common myths.
Dale
It is an interesting book about words and phrases that are urban legends. There are some great thoughts.
Krista the Krazy Kataloguer
Being a librarian, I was intrigued by the author's description of how etymological research is done.
James Swenson
Yes, accuracy is a good thing. But who wants all their favorite myths debunked?
Meghan Mahaffey
Interesting but I did skim through much of the detailed (boring) scholarly text.
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Dave Wilton is an independent researcher in historical linguistics, etymology, and slang origins. He is the author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford Univ. Press, 2004). He is also the author of two recent articles in Verbatim magazine: A Hoagie By Any Other Name, on the various names for the sandwich (XXVIII/3, Autumn 2003) and Journols Boffo Lingo: The Slang of Daily Varie ...more
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