Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds

Sometimes I pick out books based almost entirely on the title (like Christopher Moore's many wonderful books, including The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove). Especially if they're free from the library. This was one of those books, and it didn't disappoint.

The complete title is actually Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, by Michael Quinion. In case you are in any doubt of his qualifications, the cover sports the word SMITHSONIAN in big red letters above the title, and "Contributor, Oxford English Dictionary" below his name.

It was a relaxing yet erudite read, perfect for browsing or people with small children and correspondingly short attention spans. Apparently, the internet has spawned quite a few messages on word origins that are best explained as folk etymology or etymological myth, also known as etymythology: "a group of illustrations of the imaginative ways in which people can work very hard to make sense of the unknown" (p.2-3).

Quinion has taken some fun words and phrases, starting with Akimbo and ending with Zzxjoanw, and written short but occasionally ever-so-politely imperious essays on the fictious stories, the obscure and fascinating histories, and the scholarly research that the wonks (yes, that's one of the words reviewed) at the American Dialect Society, the OED and other organizations have undertaken.

Several interesting websites are included in a "Webliography", including Quinion's own World Wide Words, which is definitely the bee's knees. My only disappointments, which I may have to write to him about: there is no mention of farting in "cut the mustard", nor any description of Blue's Clues under "Twenty-Three Skidoo". Possibly Mr. Quinion isn't around anklebiters enough to have absorbed these modern usages.

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