Myths and Misconceptions
of the English Language
Do you cringe when a talking head pronounces “niche” as NITCH? Do you get bent out of shape when your teenager begins a sentence with “and,” or says “octopuses” instead of “octopi”?
Do you think British spellings are more “civilised” than the American versions? Would you bet the bank that “jeep” got its start as a military term and “SOS” as an abbreviation for “Save Our Ship”?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re myth-informed. Go stand in the corner—and read this book!
In Origins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman explode the myths and misconceptions that have led generations of language lovers astray.
They reveal why some of grammar’s best-known “rules” aren’t—and never were—rules at all.
They explain how Brits and Yanks wound up speaking the same language so differently, and why British English isn’t necessarily purer.
This playfully witty yet rigorously researched book shoots down myth after myth, setting the record straight about bogus word origins, politically correct fictions, phony français, fake acronyms, and more.
English is an endlessly entertaining, ever-changing language, and yesterday’s blooper could be tomorrow’s bon mot—or vice versa!
Here’s a shocker: “They” was once commonly used for both singular and plural, much the way “you” is today. And an eighteenth-century female grammarian, of all people, is largely responsible for the all-purpose “he.”
The authors take us wherever myths lurk, from the Queen’s English to street slang, from Miss Grundy’s admonitions to four-letter unmentionables. This eye-opening romp will be the toast of grammarphiles and the salvation of grammarphobes. Take our word for it.
To buy Origins of the Specious, visit your local bookstore, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.
Brace yourself for chapters like these:
- Stiff Upper Lips: Why Can’t the British Be More Like Us? In many ways, American English is more like the original than the variety now spoken in the UK. Americans have preserved much of the old mother tongue that the Brits have lost—yes, even the original accent!
- Grammar Moses: Forget These Commandments. It’s never been wrong to “split” an infinitive, to end a sentence with a preposition, to use contractions, or to say “go slow.” If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s this: Any so-called rule that makes you sound like a twit probably isn’t legit.
- Bad Boys of English: And Why We Still Love ’Em. Believe it or not, “ain’t” has a long—and not so disgraceful—history. So does “axe,” which used to be the standard way to spell “ask.” And George W. Bush wasn’t the only president to say “nucular”—not by a long shot.
- Lex Education: Cleaning Up Dirty Words. Some of the silliest myths about English are the result of our attempts to clean up four-letter words. No, none of those unmentionables are innocent bystanders, parading around as acronyms or ancient holy words. Learn why many Saxon terms are forbidden while the Latin versions are acceptable in polite society.
- Identity Theft: The Great Impostors. No, Thomas Crapper didn’t invent the flush toilet, and Julius Caesar’s mom didn’t have a caesarean section. Furthermore, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker gave a lot of work to working girls during the Civil War, but he didn’t give us the word “hooker.”
- An Oeuf Is an Oeuf: Fractured French. A French author’s pen name isn’t a nom de plume, a French woman doesn’t call her nightgown a negligee (or her bra a brassière), and a French audience doesn’t shout “Encore!” to hear Sam play it again. By the way, “niche” has long been pronounced NITCH.
- Sense and Sensitivity: PC Fact and Fiction. The word “woman” isn’t derived from “man,” and there’s no “his” in “history.” The expression “call a spade a spade” isn’t racist, and “shyster” didn’t come from Shylock.
Prepare to change your mind about where words come from and where they’re going. English is being reinvented every day all over the world. It’s never finished, and that’s its greatest strength. But amid all this change, myths are born. Let’s puncture a few!
Reviews of Origins of the Specious
“Readers describing the opening chapters of this trove of linguistic lore may consider surprising an apt word. But then O’Conner and Kellerman will school them in the historical distinction between surprising and astonishing. Still, most readers will welcome the corrective schooling. After all, the authors assault illusions about language with such élan that the whole process entertains and even amuses. True, it may hurt to part with cherished but apocryphal anecdotes and folk etymologies. (Alas, we must bid farewell to the endearing story about Churchill skewering pedants who opposed sentence-ending prepositions.) But most readers will cherish the gains, as real understanding replaces the semantic superstitions obscuring common expressions (“rule of thumb”) and constructions (the double negative). But besides opening up a lexical treasury, the authors teach substantive linguistic lessons. Readers learn, for example, why Americans should shed their unwarranted sense of linguistic inferiority to the British and why the guardians of correctness must recognize the inevitability of language change. No one has ever coaxed more fun out of dictionaries.”
“Bestselling word maven O’Conner (Woe Is I) is that rare grammarian who values clear, natural expression over the mindless application of rules. In her latest compendium, she debunks the hoariest of false strictures, many of them concocted by evil latter-day pedants seeking to bind the supple English tongue with the fetters of Latinate grammar. A preposition, she proclaims, is a fine thing to end a sentence with. To deftly split an infinitive is no crime to her. And starting a sentence with a conjunction gets her approval, as well as Shakespeare’s. Other misconceptions she targets include the idea that ‘woman’ has a sexist etymology and that the British speak a purer form of English than do Americans. Ranging through the history of English from Beowulf to the latest neologisms, the author accepts change in a democratic spirit; proper English, she contends, is what the majority of us say it is (though she can’t resist making a traditionalist plea to preserve favored words like ‘unique’ and ‘ironic’ from corruption). Writers will appreciate O’Conner’s liberating, common-sense approach to the language, and readers the entertaining sprightliness of her prose.”
— Publishers Weekly
“If language were set in concrete, there would be no call for new books on how to use it. These days, most such books are at pains not to seem prescriptive. In 1996, Patricia T. O’Conner gave us the admirably entitled Woe Is I, aptly subtitled The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. In this lucid and sensible book she criticized the use of hopefully to mean It is hoped or I hope: ‘Join the crowd and abuse hopefully if you want; I can’t stop you. But maybe if enough of us preserve the original meaning it can be saved. One can only hope.’
“Now, in Origins of the Specious, she says, ‘I’m not hopeful about convincing all the fuddy-duddies out there, but here goes: It’s hopeless to resist the evolution of hopefully.’ So use it, she says. ‘Hopefully, the critics will come to their senses.’
“According to how you look at it, O’Conner has turned on her fellow preservationists (‘fuddy-duddies,’ is it?), or she has evolved along with the language. In Woe Is I, she took a hard line on the difference between disinterested and uninterested. Now she says the one, generally speaking, means the other, because ‘as we all know, in English the majority rules. All those usage experts will eventually come around. . . . You can take a stand, use disinterested to mean not interested, and risk being thought an illiterate nincompoop by those who don’t know any better.’ You’ll note that ‘those who don’t know any better,’ here, are the ‘usage experts.’ That is a bit much, coming from someone who is widely regarded as a usage expert. O’Conner goes on, however, to offer characteristically good advice, which is to finesse the issue (that is, to avoid confusion) by using impartial instead of disinterested and not interested instead of uninterested.
“But enough about her. I say that only because in this new book, O’Conner, a former editor at the Book Review, and her husband, Stewart Kellerman, are co-authors who express themselves corporately as ‘I.’ They explain in an authors’ note: ‘Two people wrote this book, but it’s been our experience that two people can’t talk at the same time — at least not on the page. So we’ve chosen to write Origins of the Specious in one voice and from Pat’s point of view.’
“Origins of the Specious adeptly demolishes plausible but insupportable etymologies of brassiere (a garment whose inventor was not named Titzling), rule of thumb (nothing to do with wife beating) and other obliquely derived phrases and words.”
— New York Times Book Review
“It’s right there on page 54: ‘it’s better to be understood than to be correct’ — pull that out the next time someone corrects your grandma. This tour de force of our beautifully corrupted language is both. And dull it ain’t. If you’re planning to buy just one book of etymology this year, you’ve got it right in your hand.”
— Garrison Keillor
“Every bartender in the land should have a copy of this vastly amusing and highly informative book. Then when some tipsy bore declares that posh derives from Port Out, Starboard Home, or that you must never say disinterested when you mean uninterested, he can bring it out from behind the jar of cocktail cherries, and smack him on the head with it.”
— Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything
“With common sense and uncommon wit, O’Conner and Kellerman solve more mysteries than all the Law & Order series combined. Origins of the Specious will teach you why it is OK to bravely split an infinitive, why using ‘ain’t’ ain’t so bad, and why ending a sentence with a preposition is where it’s at.”
— David Feldman, author of the Imponderables book series
“Origins of the Specious is a witty and informative guide to the perplexities of the English language. I enjoyed it immensely.”
— Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art and The Peculiar Life of Sundays
“Inspired by answering language questions on talk radio and through email, journalists and grammar book authors O’Conner and Kellerman keep explaining the English language in ten topical chapters. While some grammar and etymology questions are familiar, other topics are happily fresh. An example of this is the first chapter, which considers authenticity, namely, whether American or British English retained more original vocabulary and pronunciation. Skillfully drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary and other research tools, the writers always present conversational prose with different kinds of wordplays. With an accessible tone and full of information, this work is recommended for public libraries.”
— Library Journal
“O’Conner’s book brings a cheerful realism (shading into resignation) to problem pronunciations (flaccid, forte), changes in meaning (beg the question, decimate), and the bizarre delusion about the spelling of dilemma (not dilemna). This wide-ranging exercise in debunkery — coded quilts on the Underground Railroad? — would be a revelation to your favorite new graduate, and it should offer even a well-informed wordie something new to disbelieve.”
— The Boston Globe
“There are a lot of books about language out there, but it is rare to find one that combines both fun and rigorous scholarship. Usually, a book is either written for a general audience and lacks notes and bibliography, making it all but useless for anyone who is halfway serious about the subject. Or it is a dry, scholarly tome, of little interest to all but the most diehard language bugs. Patricia T. O’Conner’s and Stewart Kellerman’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language is one of those rare books that hits the sweet spot, combining a light-hearted and easy style with rigorous research and useful notes. Any language lover should put this one near the top of their must-read list.”
— Dave Wilton, Wordorigins.org
“Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman know how to have fun with the English language. Origins of the Specious offers readers two-hundred-plus pages of permission to speak freely. That’s because, well, everything you know is wrong and the rules are generally being enforced by those who don’t know them….
“If you have any inclination to think a book on grammar and the English language must be dry, abandon all preconceived notions, ye who enter here. You’re likely to find Origins of the Specious shelved with the grammar books, but it might just as easily be stowed with the humor. I ask you; how can the origins of the phrase ‘charley horse’ be anything but funny? And I’m sorry to join the authors in offending a large portion of the general audience, but I was delighted to learn the origin of the phrase, ‘no room to swing a cat.’
“O’Conner and Kellerman are wonderful, straightforward prose writers who excel at turns of the phrase which keep the reading light but memorable. This is the sort of book that you’ll keep consulting long after you finish it. And yes, just in case you want to know, it does sort out the long and sordid history of one Thomas Crapper, who really did exist, and who did indeed have something to do with our favorite appliance, saviour of civilization, gift to readers everywhere. And you know, you might just consider installing this book in that very special room.”
— The Agony Column