11th July 2022
Common Word Origin Facts: Real or Myth?
The internet is full of interesting stories about the origins and history of different words. Unfortunately, not all of these etymology “facts” are true, which can cause problems if you plan on using them in your writing.
In this post, we examine five popular word origin stories to sort fact from fiction.
When Captain Cook landed on Australia’s northeast coast in 1770, he and his crew encountered kangaroos for the first time. The story goes that a sailor asked a Guugu Yimithirr man what the large, two-legged animals were called. The man, not understanding English, replied “Kangaroo,” which meant “I don’t know” in his native language. Cook mistook this for the name of the animal and recorded it as such.
The Verdict: Myth
This story came about after a later expedition to the same region in 1818 recorded the native word for kangaroo as menuah. This led people to believe that Cook had been mistaken in his translation.
The word gangarruh really is a Guugu Yimithirr word used to refer to a particular species of large kangaroo. The word menuah probably referred to a different member of the kangaroo family – which is no surprise, as Australia is home to 45 kangaroo and wallaby species!
A staple of crime thrillers and murder mysteries, the word “clue” may date back to a much older kind of story.
In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus finds himself trapped in the bull-headed monster’s labyrinth. To find his way out again, he unravels a ball of yarn while he walks. Once he defeats the Minotaur, he follows his yarn back to freedom.
So, where do clues come in? Well, an archaic English word for a ball of yarn was “clew,” sometimes spelled “clue.” Like Theseus’ “clew” helped him find his way, modern “clues” help us solve mysteries.
The Verdict: Real
“Clue” really is a variant spelling of “clew,” and its modern meaning is believed to come from the myth of Theseus. You might still come across the word “clew” in reference to a ball of string, but the “clue” spelling is now almost exclusively reserved for the puzzle-solving meaning of the word.
The name of America’s favorite condiment has an unexpected history. It’s believed to have originated as a type of sauce made from fermented fish in Vietnam before being brought by fishermen to China. There, it was known as ke-tsiap in the Hokkien language.
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When British merchants encountered this sauce in the late 1600s, they attempted to recreate it back home. As they lacked many of the original ingredients, British cooks had to improvise ke-tsiap recipes. This is where tomatoes came into the mix, and this version of the sauce would become known by its Anglicized name, ketchup.
The Verdict: Real
Believe it or not, “ketchup” really was derived from a Hokkien Chinese word. The earlier British attempts at recreating ke-tsiap are well-documented, and we even know that author Jane Austen was partial to ketchup made from walnuts!
The word “posh” is supposedly an acronym of the phrase “Port Out, Starboard Home,” which refers to the location of cabins on voyages between Britain and India.
Having a port-side cabin on the way out and a starboard-side one on the way home meant that passengers would get sunshine in the morning and cool shade in the afternoon. The corresponding tickets were thus stamped with a purple “P.O.S.H.” As these travel arrangements were the most desirable, only the richest passengers could afford them, so the word “posh” came to mean something stylish and luxurious.
The Verdict: Myth
The earliest mention of the “P.O.S.H.” acronym appears in 1935 with no evidence behind it. What’s more, no tickets stamped “P.O.S.H.” have ever been found. So, while etymologists have yet to agree on the true origin of the word “posh,” this story is likely pure pish-posh.
Paddington Bear’s favorite treat may be connected to royalty (and no, we’re not talking about his recent teatime with Queen Elizabeth II).
Rumor has it that Mary Queen of Scots became seasick on a voyage from France to Scotland. Her maids begged the ship’s doctor to help, so he brewed her a sweet orange jelly that instantly cured her illness. This jelly came to be known as Marie-est-malade, meaning “Mary is sick” in French. The phrase evolved over time, eventually becoming the “marmalade” we know today.
The Verdict: Myth
While the word “marmalade” does come from a European language, it’s not French, and it doesn’t mean “Mary is sick.” It actually originates from the Portuguese marmelada, which in turn comes from marmelo (meaning “quince”), referring to the jam made from this fruit. Quinces were later replaced with cheaper oranges, but the name stuck.
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