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Debunking Etymological Myths

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This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, Make her feel welcome!

Since I'm a language maven and all, readers sometimes ask me whether I blame the Internet for the decline in literacy. Absolutely not! The Internet, because it requires everybody to write, has simply revealed what lousy writers most people are. But the fact that they're writing is a very good thing.

The down side of the Internet is that it's chock-full of misinformation. Many of the websites devoted to words and phrase origins are hotbeds of mythology. Lots of the more popular myths pre-date the Internet, but technology has spread them to the farthest reaches of the English-speaking world. Too bad, because the truth about words is even more interesting than the myths. So let's explode a few.

1. "Caesarean."

Ask a roomful of people where the word "caesarean" comes from, and everyone will have the answer. Julius Caesar was born surgically, so the story goes, and that's why surgical births are called "caesareans." Well, fortunately for both Caesar and his mother, this isn't the answer.

In ancient times, surgical deliveries were performed only on women who were dead or dying. Back then, the child's survival was barely possible after such an operation, but not the unfortunate mother's (this was around 100 B.C., remember?). Yet Caesar's mother, Aurelia, survived his birth by at least 40 years, which would have been impossible if she'd delivered him by caesarean.

The likeliest source of our mystery word, "caesarean," is not the emperor but the Latin word caeso (from the verb caedere, meaning to cut). As for how the emperor's forebears got the cognomen "Caesar," nobody knows. One interesting theory comes from a Roman language whiz, Sextus Pompeius Festus, who thought the name came from the Latin word caesaries ("hair"). He suggested the first Caesar may have been born with a full head of hair.

The myth about Caesar is what's called a false eponym. (The word "eponym," by the way, comes from the Greek for "named after," and it means one for whom something is named.) Here's another one.

2. "Crapper."

No, my friends, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. There was such a man, and he was a plumbing magnate in 19th-century England (he even made and sold toilets), but his name is pure coincidence. Flush toilets preceded him.

Another popular claim is that Thomas Crapper's name is the source of the noun "crapper," slang for the device itself. According to this myth, American doughboys in England during World War I saw the name Crapper on toilets "over there" and brought the word home as a noun meaning "toilet."

The problem with this story is that the word was already in use in 1910, when it meant a lavatory or bathroom and not the fixture itself. The apparatus wasn't referred to as a "crapper" until 1938, long after the First World War. It's likely that any connection with Mr. Crapper himself is coincidental. Linguistically speaking, he's an innocent bystander.

3. "Jeep."

Myths are frustrating, because once they become entrenched in people's memories, they're very difficult to pry loose. "Jeep" is a good example. Many people believe, and many dictionaries will tell you, that it's a pronunciation of the initials GP, an abbreviation the Army used for its "general purpose" vehicles.

eugene-jeep.jpgNot true. The name actually comes from "Eugene the Jeep," a cartoon character who first appeared in Elzie Segar's "Thimble Theater" comic strips in 1936 (the original Popeye cartoons). Eugene was a cute little guy—a fuzzy creature the size of a small dog, with the ability to disappear into the fourth dimension in an emergency and to foresee the future. He ate a diet of orchids and the only sound he made was "jeep, jeep."

Eugene was the Snoopy of his day. He was tremendously popular and was adopted as a sort of mascot by several government contractors and other corporations (including Halliburton, by the way) in the late 1930's.

When the Army introduced its small all-terrain reconnaissance vehicle in 1941, the little car was manufactured mainly by two big companies, Willys-Overland and Ford. It just happened that Ford, on its models, used the factory designation GP—G for "government contract" and P as a code for 80-inch wheelbase.

So GP was not an Army designation, it did not stand for "general purpose," and it was not the origin of the name "Jeep." When Willys-Overland unveiled its prototype, reporters wanted to know its name. The publicist said, "You can call it a Jeep." Willys changed hands over the years and now the trademark "Jeep" is owned by Chrysler.

4. "Snuck."

Here's a piece of news. English is a living language, and it changes. Many myths about words can be traced to the fact that the words evolved. No, contrary to popular opinion, they are not written in stone! Take the word "snuck," which has sneaked into common usage and even into dictionaries.

In formal written English, the generally accepted standard forms of the verb are "sneak," "sneaked," and "have sneaked." But "snuck," which cropped up as a nonstandard variant of "sneaked" in 19th-century America, has become so common over the years that dictionaries now accept it as standard English. If you don't believe me, check out Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) or The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Usage experts, who are more conservative than lexicographers, generally frown on it, so I wouldn't use it in formal writing. But currently "snuck" is used about as often as "sneaked," and seems likely to replace it eventually.

What many people don't like to accept about English is that in the end, correctness is determined by common practice.

5. "Whole Nine Yards."

Another thing some people just can't accept is that the origins of many common expressions will probably always remain a mystery. We know, for instance, what "the whole nine yards" means—the works, everything, the whole enchilada. But nobody knows where it comes from.

Before you offer the definitive etymology of the expression, let me say that I've heard it before. I've heard them all, and none of them are genuine. "The whole nine yards" is not a reference to ammunition clips used by gunners on World War II aircraft. It is not a seafaring phrase about the three yards—or long spars—on each of the three masts of a clipper ship. It has nothing to do with the amount of fabric required to make a burial shroud. And it's not about the capacity of a ready-mix concrete truck, either.

In fact, no one really knows how the phrase originated. All we know for sure is that it's an Americanism from the 1960s. Unfortunately, many linguists and writers (including me) have spent way too much time trying to track down its origin. All those theories I mentioned, from ammo belts to loads of cement, have been debunked. The British language sleuth Michael Quinion has also ruled out suggestions that the phrase comes from the fabric needed for a nun's habit, a three-piece suit, or a Scottish kilt; the capacity of a coal-ore wagon or a garbage truck; the length of a maharajah's sash or a hangman's noose; the distance between the cellblock and the outer wall of a prison, and any number of measurements having to do with sports.

We simply don't know—and may never know—where some words and expressions come from. But language lovers hate to take no for an answer. Maybe that's how myths are born.

Yesterday: Debunking Grammar Myths. Coming tomorrow: Five Lessons in Grammar. And on Friday, Pat will be answering your grammar questions. You can ask said questions in the comments.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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