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Sense and sensitivity: Are you myth informed?

(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 politically correct facts and fictions.)

(1) Does the expression “rule of thumb” have anything to do with wife beating?

(2) Is it racist to “call a spade a spade”?

(3) Did the term “shyster” originate as an anti-Semitic allusion to Shylock?

(4) Is “wop” an acronym for “without papers” and was it used at Ellis Island to identify immigrants without proper documentation?

(5) Are male chauvinists responsible for the use of “he,” “him,” and “his” to refer to both men and women?


(1) No one has ever found an old English law allowing a husband to beat his wife with a rod no thicker than his thumb. The phrase “rule of thumb” refers to using body parts (hands, feet, thumbs, etc.) for rough measurements.

(2) “Call a spade a spade” has nothing to do with race. In its earliest versions, in ancient Greece, the saying was about figs and troughs, not spades. During the Renaissance, the Greek word for trough was mistranslated as the Latin word for spade.

(3) We can’t thank Shakespeare for “shyster.” We got it in the 19th century from a vulgar German word, scheisser, literally “one who shits,” or as an American would put it, an asshole.

(4) “Wop” has been a derogatory term for Italians since at least 1908, 10 years before immigration documents were required of newcomers. The term is derived from guappo, a word in Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects for a thug.

(5) If any one person is responsible for this usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book.

For more on these and other myths about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore,, or Barnes&