Friday - - Music and Books -

Put a ring to it What do m’aidez and l’oeuf have in com­mon? Both are French terms, the first mean­ing ‘Help me’ and the sec­ond, ‘the egg’, and both are well-known in English just as pro­nounced in French.

Well, al­most. M’aidez be­came the dis­tress cry ‘May­day!’ of mariners and avi­a­tors, and l’oeuf sim­ply be­came ‘love’ to de­note a score of zero in ten­nis. Speak­ing of dis­tress signals, ‘SOS’ doesn’t stand for ‘save our ship’ or ‘save our souls’ – it is sim­ply Morse code for those three let­ters (• • • – – – • • •), with the three dots and three dashes alert­ing a ra­dio lis­tener to the dis­tress call.

Th­ese and other ex­am­ples con­sti­tute what is called folk et­y­mol­ogy, a pop­u­lar but mis­con­ceived ver­sion su­per­sed­ing an of­ten for­got­ten orig­i­nal term. If it has a bet­ter ring to it, then it stays. Fowler’sMod­ern English Us­age de­fined it as ‘a pop­u­lar mod­i­fy­ing of the form of a word or phrase in or­der to make it seem to be de­rived from a more fa­mil­iar word’.

The term is also ap­plied more gen­er­ally to any pop­u­lar but mis­taken ac­count of the ori­gin of a word or phrase. One ex­am­ple is posh, which the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary says is de­rived ei­ther from a slang Ro­mani word mean­ing ‘money’ or even from the Urdu word safed-pōś, which means ‘well-dressed’ or ‘dressed in white’.

But the pop­u­lar ac­count sug­gests that posh is in fact an acro­nym, stand­ing for ‘port out, star­board home’. It refers to the fact that on sea voy­ages be­tween Bri­tain and In­dia, the most com­fort­able and there­fore most ex­pen­sive cab­ins on ship would be on the port side go­ing out, and the star­board side com­ing back.

It was fur­ther sug­gested that the P&O ship­ping com­pany is­sued tick­ets for the more ex­pen­sive cab­ins on this route with the let­ters POSH, and that this is where the ori­gin lies. This ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion does seem per­sua­sive but, sadly, no ev­i­dence ex­ists to back it up and no tick­ets with this des­ig­na­tion have been found.

It also begs the ques­tion of what hap­pened on voy­ages be­tween the two places if your home was in In­dia! More next week.

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