Linguistic legends & lore

Meaghan Trewin
Meaghan Trewin

One of the foremost duties of a word nerd is to study etymology—the history and development of language—to find and share the fascinating stories behind the creation of words. Take, for instance, the words “sincere” and “sincerely.” In ancient Rome, conniving artisans would cheat customers by filling cracks in their sculptures with wax, which would eventually wear away and leave a flawed work of art. As a result, artisans would advertise that their sculptures were produced “without wax” or “sine cera,” and the phrase quickly became associated with reliability and authenticity.

Unfortunately, stories of how words have come into being are often not as easy to trace. In fact, within the seemingly innocuous world of etymology there exists a lively exchange of word myths and linguistic urban legends.

Some of these legends are fairly easy to pick out, such as the particularly ridiculous word myth describing the origins of “sirloin,” which, despite its absurdity, was backed by none other than the esteemed Samuel Johnson, famous grammarian and writer of the first modern English dictionary. According to this particular legend, an English king (the specific ruler changes with different versions of the story) enjoyed a particular cut of meat so thoroughly that he knighted it “Sir Loin.” Aside from sounding completely ridiculous, the story is historically impossible as “sirloin” was actually part of the language in the 16th century, well before any of the possible hungry kings ascended the throne. In fact, the sirloin steak is named based on the part of the animal it is taken from, having originally been spelled “surloin” and coming from the Old French “surloing” which translates into English as “over” or “above” the “loin.”

On the other hand, many linguistic urban legends are harder to pick out and are commonly believed even today. For example, the ballpark sausage, which vendors call a dachshund sausage due to its elongated shape, inspired early 20th-century cartoonist Tad Dorgan to draw an actual dog sandwiched inside a bun. Unsure of how to correctly spell dachshund, the story goes, Dorgan used “hot dog” instead, giving birth to an American cuisine icon. This story, despite being the official story of the American National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, has little factual basis—first because there’s no existing copy of the cartoon in question, and second because there are numerous documented sources that demonstrate the widespread use of the term “hot dog” well before 1901, the year cited as the beginning of the hot dog.

The connection between sausages and hot dogs most likely originated from jokes about the presence of dog meat in the sausage. But of course, the official story places the manufacturers and vendors in a far more positive light than any reference to dubious meat quality.

Other popular legends include the story that “Ring-Around-the-Rosie” is actually a coded reference to the Black Plague, and that Pumpernickel bread was so named because an angry Napoleonic soldier decided the dark bread was so coarse that it was only fit for his horse, Nicol, and began calling it “pain-pour-Nicol.” That “Ring-Around-the-Rosie” is about the plague, referring to the sores, sneezing and resulting death (“all fall down”), is a stretch in the extreme. There’s no recorded evidence of the song until hundreds of years after the plague epidemics: it would have to have been continuously recited throughout the centuries, without anyone once committing the rhyme to writing. As well, if the rhyme really dates back to the time of the plague, there would have to be some version of the song in Middle English, which is also absent from oral and written literary tradition. The more likely, if slightly less remarkable, origin of the song is nothing more than a mere nonsense rhyme, like most other nursery rhymes. The so-called myth of “Pumpernickel” is also easily debunked: it was used as the English name for the bread well before Napoleon’s birth and originated directly from the even older German word for “jerk.” There are vast numbers of exaggerations and urban legends to be found in etymology: for even more examples, check out the origins of “posh,” “strawberry” and “OK.” Beyond being fairly easy to negate, each of the terms come with its own personal mythology. For whatever reason—be it humour, advertising, mistaken assumptions or simply because the fabricated story is far more interesting than the real story—each one of these legends testifies to language’s complexity. Language is often much more complicated than it seems. And while many literary legends do hold a grain of truth, almost all stories deserve, at the very least, to be subjected to a certain level of doubt and analyzed a little closer. So whenever you embark on your own etymological explorations, keep in mind that everything isn’t always exactly as it seems and keep a wary eye out for word origins and stories that are not entirely “without wax.”

For more etymological exploration, check out phrases.org.uk

Overheard in Kingston

“We are shunning him now. No one is having his babies.”

—Girl talking to two girl friends in Leggett

“... That was the first time a girl had faked an orgasm with him.”

—Followed by laughter from three engineering girls in BioSci

“I have a feeling I’m really going to regret this in the morning.”

—Girl in unmanageably high heels on her way to Alfie’s

“Um, are the stairs even working?”

—Drunk girl in Victoria Hall lobby

“I’m not even wearing pants. I’m wearing, like, tights.”

—Girl in Victoria Hall lobby

“Oh, I forgot. You’re a Queen’s student: you’re an idiot!”

—Kingston cyclist after almost hitting a pedestrian on University Ave.

Guy 1: “There are definitely some good gangs out there.”

Guy 2: “What, like gangs that do community service, then shoot a guy up on the street?”

Guy 1: “Yeah, you know, like help 10 people, then kill one.”

—Followed by laughter from two guys entering Ban Righ cafeteria

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