Old Wives Tales, Malarkey, and the OED

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September 25, 2014 by libroshombre

“Do Blue Sheets Bring Babies? The Truth Behind Old Wives’ Tales,” by Thomas Craughwell, was a Gulliver’s used-book purchase I couldn’t resist. After a brief sampling, it joined the other mildly-intriguing and potentially amusing little books on my shelves that I salt away for futFeatured imageure perusal. Craughwell’s book and I recently became better acquainted, and it performed well enough, amusing and sometimes edifying. For instance, I didn’t know that while mice don’t scare them per se, elephants, being near-sighted and their eyes forward-set, can be agitated by small creatures darting around their feet, as often happens in zoos or circuses, but rarely in the wild. Or how chicken soup has heart-healthy and anti-inflammatory properties.

Citing a National University of Singapore study, Craughwell says the “secret ingredient is a type of protein known as a peptide … only peptide from chickens made human blood vessels healthier.” And those blue sheets? He doesn’t cite a specific source in claiming, “Researchers have found that blue can reduce the heart rate and have a calming effect. And a bridegroom who is calm and confident rather than tense and over-eager is likely to perform better.” My malarkey meter is activated by this dubious logic.

My Dad taught me a lot about “malarkey,” defined as “meaningless talk, nonsense, or foolishness,” in its many forms. Our family experienced fake vomit, toilFeatured imageet-seat squirters, and fountain pens shooting disappearing ink that occasionally and delightfully backfired on him. But Dad also passed on his love of wordplay. It falls under the “meaningless talk” part of “malarkey,” but while the expression’s origins are uncertain, the VisualThesaurus.com says its first appearance in print came from newspaper cartoonist Thomas Dorgan, better known as TAD, in 1922.

In the early 20th century, cartoons were often more revealing of events than the grainy photographs newspapers had to use, and TAD was considered the cartoonist’s cartoonist, particularlyFeatured image of sporting events. No less than Jack Dempsey called TAD “the greatest authority on boxing” of his time. His work generated a huge following for his unusual words and turns of phrase. Besides “malarkey,” he popularized phrases like “drugstore cowboy,” “for crying out loud,” and “twenty-three skidoo.” He nicknamed eyeglasses “cheaters,” a tough guys “hard-boiled,” and idiots “dumbbells,” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was taken from a TAD cartoon. No wonder W.J. Funk, of Funk and Wagnall’s, put TAD first on his “ten most fecund makers of American slang.”

Some say my passion for wordplay sometimes goes too far. For example, when a recent daily vocabulary-builder from A.Word.A.Day posting included the term, “degust: to taste or savor appreciatively,” my thoughts went from, “what is a ‘gust,” and can you ‘pregust’ and ‘regust’?” to “that would kill a Scrabble game” with my sweetie. Forty-one years of wordplay apparently erode some tolerance levels dramatically.

I feel more like it’s more of an artistic pursuit, like being a minor contributor to the world of conlanging. A “conlang,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a constructed language.” The Klingon language spoken on Star Trek, for example, is a conlang, a working language that its creator set out to build from scratch. The twelfth-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen was the first prominent conlanger, creating her “Lingua Ignota,” or “hidden language,” for her hymns.” And then there’s J.R.R. Tolkein, the modern conlanger par excellence. Though famous for his masterpieces “The Hobbit” and “The Ring Trilogy,” which contain all sorts of invented languages, the books were products of Tolkein’s passion for conlanging.

But “What is a word,” as asked this month in an Economist.com blog article? Most dictionaries define it as “a unit of speech,” or something similar. However, “there is no Dictionary,” the Economist pointed out, there are many dictionaries, all taking differing approaches and including different words. The queen of them all is the 59-million-word, 21,728-page, twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It contains 301,1Featured image00 main entries, 626,500 word-forms, 249,300 etymologies, and 2,412,400 usage quotations, and would take a person 120 years to “key in” the text, 60 years to proofread, and 540 megabytes to store electronically. You can buy the OED on CD for $224., or get the 20-volume print edition for a mere $1,274.98.

Of you can use it for free at your public library. And that’s no malarkey.

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