Little-known fact: kangaroo could really mean “wanker”.
No! I hear you protest. Surely the single most quintessentially Australian word cannot have such a vulgar etymology.
But according to Susan Butler, Macquarie Dictionary’s editor, it could be an Aboriginal expletive. In her recently released book on Australian English, The (H)aitch Factor, Butler drops the bombshell. The story goes, James Cook saw an unfamiliar creature bounce past and asked the Aborigines what it was. Kangaroo, they told him. But they could’ve been pulling his leg. Nobody could track down the word in the local Aboriginal language (so poor was the research), so several “folk etymologies” now exist. In one such story, they gave him a rude word to joke at his expense. My guess is that it was “wanker”. You can insert your own profanity.
This is one of several folk etymologies Butler details or debunks in her book. She blames our need to find meaning in everything, our desperation for the profound that causes us to fill the vacuum with fun, fascinating — and ultimately, false — etymologies: “There is something in us that rebels from the notion of a language as a conglomeration of happenstance. We like to feel that words develop meanings in an orderly fashion.”
In a similar befuddlement of Aboriginal languages, Butler dispels the belief that didgeridoo is an Aboriginal word. It’s actually onomatopoeia, or as she puts it: “a white man’s imitation of the sound given a pseudo-Aboriginal spelling”.
Linguistic legends die harder than urban ones; the pleased-with-self smugness one feels upon spelling out an acronym is difficult to let go of when you discover you’ve been wrong all along. Butler’s myth-busters come hard and fast. Pom/Pommy does not derive from “Prisoner of Mother England”, as is commonly held. It’s actually an abbreviation, not an acronym — short for pomegranate. Immigrant was given the rhyming slang nickname Jimmy Grant, and by the early 1900s this (somehow) transformed to pommygrant or pommygranate. Similarly, WOG is not from Western, Wily or Worthy Oriental Gentleman. Its origin is unknown. News is not, as some believe, an acronym for north, east, west, south — but “a nominalisation of the adjective new”.
Beyond Butler’s book, there are semantic stories that are seemingly spun just to satisfy us. It’s hard to swallow, but the myths outnumber the facts — and the more they get repeated, the more widely the tales are told. It becomes tricky to undo the mythologising and get to the truth.
In his book The Etymologicon, Mark Forsyth writes: “Acronyms are, I’m afraid, mainly myths.” Another he explodes is posh standing for Port Out Starboard Home. Posh, in fact, isn’t an acronym at all. Some think shit is an acronym for Store High In Transit (referring to boats transporting manure) and fuck is an acronym for For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (referring to when sex could land you in jail). Both are “ingenious, imaginative acronymic myths”.
The Australian word chunder also gets confused with the upper deck of boats — apparently a truncation of the cautionary cry Watch under! as a sailor was about to vomit. But like the manure storage, this is shit. It’s more likely to be rhyming slang for “spew” from Australian cartoon character Chunder Loo.
Other rumours spread about language don’t come from etymologies or acronyms, but plain falsehoods, repeated so often that even reputed sources fall into the trap.
The Eskimos, for example, don’t have 400 words for snow, as parts of the internet proclaim. They actually have the same number of words for snow as English — between two and six. Shakespeare is often credited as inventing the most new words in the English language: the myth runs that he coined 1700 neologisms. The real number is far fewer; in many cases, Shakespeare popularised or shifted words. And the chief neologist trophy belongs to another scribe: Milton, who invented hundreds of words.
As for inventing or borrowing words that don’t already exist, it’s fashionable to believe that we borrow schadenfreude from German as there’s no English equivalent. There is: it’s epicaricacy.
Linguistic legends are like Santa Claus, god or the virtuous politician; sometimes the myth is more comforting, satisfying or exciting than reality.