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.