Word Myths

Wilton, David. Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

The paperback version of Word Myths is available.

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Did you ever think that Ring Around The Rosie makes reference to the Black Death of the Middle Ages? Or that the whole nine yards refers to the length of a machinegun ammo belt? Or perhaps that Eskimos have 500 words for snow? If so, then you have been taken in by a linguistic urban legend. Like classic urban legends, these linguistic legends are popular and pervasive. Instead of propagating cautionary tales about the dangers of modern life, linguistic urban folklore propagates stories and “facts” about language.

Word Myths takes on these linguistic urban legends, not just debunking them, but also examining why they are told and what they tell us about ourselves. The book examines the patterns underlying these legends and comes to conclusions about such things as why we attach morbid tales to children’s rhymes, why newspapers keep promulgating false origins for terms like the Windy City, or why so many words have false nautical origins. Word Myths is an entertaining, yet authoritative, look at these and other linguistic legends.

“Most everything you know about word and phrase origins is likely to be wrong, and David Wilton proves it with a light touch and a wealth of fascinating case histories. Absolutely everyone with an interest in language will love this book.”

-- J.E. Lighter, Editor, Historical Dictionary of American Slang

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