Queer As Folk Etymology
- Katherine Barber (Author)
Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Ramona Montagnes
Back from a recent trip to New Orleans, my husband claimed to have learnt the etymology for the word “fence” as in “fenced goods.” According to his tour guide, buccaneers in the 1800s sold stolen goods from the premises of St. Louis Cathedral. While the church apparently sanctioned the transactions, it did not sanction the trampling of the flower beds surrounding the property; it subsequently erected a fence outside of which the parties could conduct their business.
Having just read Katherine Barber’s Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, I suspected this explanation was a folk etymology (an inaccurate and unnecessarily complicated word history.) And so, taking Barber’s advice, I checked in the Oxford English Dictionary which informed me that the first recorded use of the word “fence” in relation to stolen goods was by Rowland in 1610.
Barber’s lively and somewhat irreverent book does more than rail against folk etymologies. It begins with a short summary “Bluff Your Way in Etymology” that coasts through language history and its movements such as the “the French squishing syndrome” and the “great vowel shift.” From there, this etymological wordbook is organized according to the seasons—the thematic hook used on the CBC radio show from which the book originates.
The organization is pleasing to those who like to dip into books (thank goodness for the indices for the rest of us) but readers should not expect to find a continuous theme linking the sections. “Pigs” are limited to only those “six words” referred to in the title. Seemingly, words related to cows and goats play a larger role in our language. And the book ends rather abruptly, even ominously, on the word “retire,” a word which has its roots in “martyr” and “pull”—as on the medieval rack.
Word histories are generally fascinating but of particular interest to Canadians are the histories of Canadian words that distinguish us from Americans. Many of these words stem from First Nations languages (chipmunk, toboggan, and whisky jack) and from the French and English colonists (bumf, emmets, figgy duff, toque, and toe rubbers). The more modern words reflect our love for the great outdoors and holidays: Canadian National Exhibition (“exhibition” in this sense a Canadianism), May Two-Four Weekend, March Break, shack (for cottage), and Cottage Country. There are also regional differences: “dainties” on the West Coast means an assortment of pastries, whereas in Ontario, the same word stands for underwear. Caveat emptor.
Barber also clears up some misconceptions regarding our use of what we believe to be modern words. “Bulimia” (bolismus) was first used in 1398, “toast” in 1400, “ketchup” (without tomatoes) in 1650, and “weapons of mass destruction” in 1937. Adults who abhor the teenage use of the word “like” as an intensifier (“He got, like, really upset”) should be aware that Fanny Burney in 1778 wrote ”Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his lordship’s taking offence.”
In her role as “Canada’s Word Lady,” Barber argues that we should accept changes in words and their usage. She questions purists who are against the evolution of nouns to verbs: do these people never “mail” letters, “book” hotel rooms, “butter” toast, or take planes that “land”? What she won’t accept, however, is the dreaded folk etymology. When you consider the word “the hooch” in folk etymology is believed to be derived from the chemical formula of ethanol, but in reality it comes from the Tlingit word “Hutsnuw,” you can see that when it comes to the history of words, the truth is often more interesting than fiction.
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- Translation Incorporation by Dean J. Irvine
Books reviewed: Esprit de Corps: Québec Poetry of the Late Twentieth Century in Translation by Louise Blouin, D. G. Jones, and Bernard Pozier and Body Inc.: A Theory of Translation Poetics by Pamela Banting
- Tissus et voix muettes by Matthew Jordan Schmidt
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MLA: Montagnes, Ramona. Queer As Folk Etymology. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 141 - 142)
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