Unclear origins Last week we were on a subject that has lexicographers groaning as they sift through the evidence and clear up confusion over the correct origin of a word without falling prey to false etymology – that plausible but false belief about the origins of specific words, often originating in “common-sense” assumptions.
Many of these words fall into a group called backronyms, phrases specially constructed so that acronyms fit existing words. Some backronyms are genuine, in the sense that they were coined for humorous reasons, such as the search engine Yahoo!. The letters supposedly stand for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle’ but it was actually named by its founders after the Yahoos, legendary beings in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels who are filthy and have unpleasant habits – traits that appealed to the search engine’s founders.
Other coined backronyms belong firmly to the category of false etymology such as Posh (which we discussed last week).
A recurring story goes that the brand name adidas is an acronym for ‘All day I dream about sport’, when in reality it is named after company founder Adolf ‘ Adi’ Dassler. Here are two more:
Golf: Many people think that golf means, ‘Gentleman only, ladies forbidden’. But once again, there’s no truth to this one. As for the real origin of the word golf, one theory says it’s derived from the Dutch word kolf, which means a stick or club, as in the kind TigerWoods uses to hit a ball 300 yards on to the green. And the Scots have a similar-sounding word, goul, which means, ‘to strike or cut off’.
Cop: This supposedly stands for ‘constable on patrol’. However, cop is neither that, nor a slang term to describe the copper buttons on the uniforms of 18th-century New York City police officers. The word cop was initially used in the 1840s as a verb meaning ‘to arrest’. Eventually the word transformed from ‘to arrest into police custody’ to describe the person doing the arresting; soon after, police officers started being called ‘coppers’.