Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins by Michael Quinon, Smithsonian Books, 2004.
The stories of words are fascinating and fun. As I labor to learn Spanish, and attempt to retain what little German I know (much less English!), finding the circuitous pathways between words helps me understand language. Knowing something of the history of a word not only helps in its correct usage, but also provides a better grasp of the more subtle connotation.
Ballyhoo, etc. is as at least as much a destroyer of myths of word origins as it is a provider of “factual” histories. It appears that etymology has a particularly notable tendency towards myth, or “folk-etymology” as Quinion has it. This doesn’t surprise me much, because telling stories to explain things is one of the things we humans do best — and enjoy the most. As wiser people than me have argued, narrative is a fundamental characteristic of human thought.
The book is rich with great stories that are, unfortunately, unsupported by available facts. In some cases, we are provided with authoritative origins, in some cases a collection of better references that hint towards the origins, and, in many cases, we are left adrift.
Quinion argues against incorrect usage of words, or uses that are based upon misunderstanding, but acknowledges that these incorrect applications gradually become correct through use. We language snobs and pedants may know that “a mute point” is incorrect (and may even expound on how the meaning of “moot” has changed through time), but, when all is said and done, the “incorrect” phrase may be the one that survives and becomes a part of the language. That mutability is what’s magical, fun, and, yes, threatening about language. And, inevitable, so “resistance is feudal.”