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Word Myths
Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends

Wilton, David
Publisher:  Oxford University Press
Year Published:  2004  
Pages:  222pp   Price:  $27.95   ISBN:  0-19-517284-1
Library of Congress Number:  PE1584.W55 2004   Dewey:  422--dc22

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Wilton is the creator and editor of, one of the best reference sites on the Web. In his introduction here, he answers two questions: what is a linguistic urban legend? It is a subcategory which propagates facts about word origins.

Many words or phrases here began life as jokes or hoaxes. Others were distorted facts. Wilton tries to sort it all out.

The second question is: how to ferret out the truth? He uses historical dictionaries, and other dictionaries of slang, dialect and etymology.

The remainder of the book is a deconstruction of phrases (e.g., ring around the rosie is not about the bubonic plague, OK did not come from Andrew Jackson's "oll korrect", nor the "Old Kinderhook" reference. Read the book to find out; it is absolutely fascinating.

There are extensive end notes, a detailed annotated bibliography, and an alphabetical index to the main words being discussed.

Audience or interest level: journalists (in order to help them stop perpetuate errors)

Some interesting facts: "Those of us who stand up and call for skepticism and reason know that there is little chance that we can stop the spread of these legends".

What I don't like about this resource: limiting, only 221 pages. There is much more stuff on the Internet for free.

What I do like about this resource: there is an indication that you can find more at alt.folklore.urban (Usenet) and (Web), plus his own Web site.

Quality-to-Price Ratio: 88.

[Review by Dean Tudor]

Table of Contents


1. What is a Linguistic Urban Legend?
2. Where Do They Come From?
3. How Do They Vary?
4. Why Do We Tell Them?
5. How Are They Told?
6. Who Tells Them?
7. Are We Being Spoilsports?
8. How Do We Ferret out the Truth?

Part I: Debunking the Big Boys
9. Ring Around the Rosie
10. OK
11. The Whole Nine Yards
12. Rule of Thumb
13. They Speak Elizabethan English in the Appalachians
14. 500 Eskimo Words for Snow
15. Windy City
16. Hot Dog

Part II: The Elizabethan E-mail Hoax
17. Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
18. Raining Cats and Dogs
19. Dirt Poor
20. Threshold
21. Pease Porridge
22. Bring Home the Bacon
23. Chew the Fat
24. Trencher / Trench Mouth
25. Bed and Board
26. Upper Crust
27. Wake
28. Graveyard Shift
29. Saved by the Bell and Dead Ringer

Part III: Posh, Phat Pommies
30. Ichthys
31. Cabal
32. AWOL
33. Fuck
34. News and Tips
35. Gold
36. Spud
37. Wog
38. Nylon
39. SOS
40. Pommy
41. Phat
42. Posh

Part IV: Canoe
43. Devil to Pay
44. Let the Cat out of the Bag
45. Cold Enough to Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey
46. Over a Barrel
47. Mind your Ps and Qs
48. Under the Weather
49. Knock Off
50. Son of a Gun
51. Railroad Origins - Balling the Jack / Balls to the Wall
52. Ethnic Origins - Lynch / Jazz / America

Part V: Hookers, Harlots, and Condoms
53. Hooker
54. Harlot
55. Condom
56. Crap
57. In Like Flynn
58. Real McCoy
59. Dixie
60. Upset
61. Pumpernickel
62. Ellis Island Name Changing

Part VI: The Perils of Political Correctness
63. Picnic
64. Nitty Gritty
65. Jimmies
66. Indian / In Dion
67. Indian Giver
68. Squaw
69. Hip / Hep
70. Gay
71. Faggot
72. Handicap
73. Politically Correct
74. Tinker's Damn

Part VII: Wax Tadpoles and Jelly Doughnuts
75. I am a Jelly Doughnut
76. Chevy No Go
77. Bite the Wax Tadpole
78. Turn it Loose and Fly Naked
79. Kangaroo
80. Gringo


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