Tuesday, November 09, 2004

When "Actually" Means Someone Made It Up

When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I'd say "Journalist", and everyone would ooh and ahh and nod in amused approval. So young and already so serious-minded, they were probably thinking. Actually, the way I figured it, it was an indoors job with air-conditioning plus travel to exciting warzones.

Well, now I'm allegedly grown up, I know for a fact that real journalists spend all their time buried in research, and get about as much respect as lawyers, used car salesmen, and reporters who work for any Rupert Murdoch news service.

Oddly enough, something of the old-quest-for-the-truth urge must have been immanent even in my childhood - then, and now, I've always been driven to find out how things work, and what things really mean, and is-it-true..?

Like, is it true that the word "butterfly" actually developed from the description that the insect "flutters by"? No, since the word "butterfly" predates the word "flutter" by a good few hundred years, and "butterfly" occurs in related languages to English with the similar meaning of something yellowy (like butter) that flies.

Is it true that the expression "rule of thumb" actually once referred to the thickness of a rod a man was once legally allowed to hit his wife with. No, it refers to the once common practice of referencing body parts as measuring aids. Really. Back before metric. People had more important things to measure, like wool and cloth, and if they wanted to hit their spouses they used their fists.

And is it true that everybody's favourite four-letter word actually began in Olden Times as an acronym for "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" or "Fornication Under Consent of the King"? Insert some colourful anectdote about rapists and adulterers being punished by wearing sign around their necks, or some other equally colourful anectdote about the supposed rights of monarchs in Olden Times.

Good bloody grief. Sure, "fuck" is a funny-looking word, but it's real. It's from a Germanic root word. (Oh, ha ha.) As opposed to all those claims made in those stupid email lists that people keep sending me, not because the lists are hilarious, but because they genuinely believe the lists are true. Doesn't anyone look up a dictionary anymore?

I like that us humans are such a bloody inventive people, I love the creative impulses that drive us to gossip, share jokes, scare each other silly with campfire ghost stories, and just plain bullshit one another over a beer or a cup of English Breakfast. It's one of our defining characteristics, our great socialising capacity.

I hate that we've grown so lazy we'll accept anything old cock, however blatantly ludicrous, as the truth, instead of taking a moment to check the facts. One mouseclick! Maybe two! I hate that we seem to be losing our sense of irony, and seem instead to be embracing credulousness.

You want words with funny meanings? How about "plagiarism", that started off as a description of the theft of someone else's slave or child, rather than the theft of ideas that we understand today. Or "boudoir", it wasn't a lady's private chamber, it comes from a French word meaning "to pout, to sulk".

There's more, of course. But it involves looking them up for yourself, making discoveries of your own, on the weird and wonderful little oddities that have accumulated over hundreds of years of English. Just don't email me a list of them, thanks.

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