(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about misbegotten word and phrase origins.)
(1) Is the word “jeep” derived from GP, an Army abbreviation for “general purpose” vehicle?
(2) Does the expression “three sheets to the wind,” meaning drunk, refer to loose sails flapping in the wind?
(3) Does “no room to swing a cat” refer to the cat-o’-nine-tails once used to keep wayward sailors in line?
(4) Is the term “cop” derived from the copper buttons or badges on police uniforms?
(5) Is “Xmas” part of a modern secular plot to x-out Jesus from the holiday?
(1) Think again. The true source is Eugene the Jeep, a character in the old Thimble Theater cartoon strips featuring Popeye, Olive Oyl, and company.
(2) To a sailor, sheets are lines (ropes, to a landlubber), and not sails. The sheets are used to trim, or adjust, the sails. If the sheets are loose, the sails can’t do their job, leaving the vessel out of control, not unlike a drunken sailor.
(3) The “cat” in question is actually of the feline variety. The expression has been traced to Elizabethan times, when archers put cats in leather sacks and swung them from trees for target practice.
(4) The best evidence is that the noun “cop” comes from the verb “cop,” which has meant to seize or nab since at least the early 1700s.
(5) Modern? Not by a long shot. And secular? Think again. The usage has been around for nearly a thousand years. The real culprits were monks in Britain who used the Greek letter X (short for ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, or “Christ”) when transcribing classical manuscripts into Old English.
For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.