CLOSE

Debunking Etymological Myths

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, grammarphobia.com. 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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

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.

1. ON SCIENCE

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

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"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

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"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

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"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

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"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

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"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

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"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

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[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

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

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: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
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: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

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

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

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

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios