Friday - - Leisure -

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’.

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