Just freewheeling on mistakes and etymology

A few days ago, I posted something about The Becuase Effect (sic), referring people to Graham Barrow’s question in the Feedback column of the New Scientist. Graham was asking about the frequency of common misspellings, particularly typos, and in a comment on my post he mused about the way such words enter language, whether “becuase” could become an “internet” word.

And that in turn made me think about words or phrases that enter language as a result of an error.

Take the word “hoodlum”. I’ve read many suggested etymologies for the word, but the one I prefer is given below. Sadly, I have not been able to verify it online as yet, but I stand by it, it’s the best one I’ve come across :

Sometime in the second half of the 19th century, I think it was on the West Coast, there was a journalist in the US writing an article on  urban crime, and he wanted to refer to a particular unsavoury character named Muldoon. Not wanting to name the miscreant outright, for fear of immediate retribution, he wanted to try and disguise the name. The particular disguise he chose was a simple one; he wrote Mr Muldoon’s name backwards. So the article was meant to refer to Mr Noodlum. The typesetter could not read the journalist’s writing, and interpreted the “N” in noodlum as an H, so the name appeared throughout the article as Mr Hoodlum.

And everyone was happy, and the world gained a new word to describe an unsavoury character.

It’s not just words that enter the language as a result of an error. Sometimes it happens to the names used to describe city landmarks:

There’s a piece of apocrypha about the way a bridge in Madras got its name. Apparently it was called Hamilton Bridge to begin with; locals could not pronounce the name, so they rendered it “Ambattan” Bridge (dropping the aspirate and the “l” and adding a “b” after the “m”, all very believable). A visiting dignitary heard the bridge referred to as Ambattan Bridge, and asked what “Ambattan” meant. Coincidentally, “ambattan” meant “barber” in Tamil. The dignitary was having none of this vernacular nonsense, so he immediately decreed that the bridge be referred to as Barber’s Bridge.

I’ve never seen the “hoodlum” story rebutted, although alternative explanations have been given. As far as the Barber’s Bridge story is concerned, I have seen a number of articles suggesting that the etymology was suspect, given the dearth of suitably qualified Hamiltons in Madras history. The construction of the bridge seems to predate the existence of any Hamilton associated with the city; at least one suitable Hamilton has been found from a later date, but no Barber. I haven’t checked recently, but I believe Hamilton Bridge continues to exist today. From my viewpoint the etymology I suggest still seems possible, given the prodigious proclivity of planners in the sphere of name-changing. This post gives you some of the views.

5 thoughts on “Just freewheeling on mistakes and etymology”

  1. Bugs becoming features! and then bugs and the cycle goes on.
    Wooden top, rolls, Tambaram, and now Ambattan bridge. It is getting interesting by the day?
    But what happened in the facebook debate? I’m curious.

  2. The apocryphal etmolgy I liek best is that “Kangaroo” is the aboriginal dialect for “what did you say?”, which was the reply to “what the heck was that big jumping animal?”

  3. Hi Balaji, I haven’t had time to write up the Facebook event, and a few other things for that matter. Will do shortly. Nice to see you around. You too, Kevin. Hadn’t heard the kangaroo one, loved it.

    That kind of etymology really intrigues me, where a relatively short word conveys a lot of meaning. More later.

Let me know what you think

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