Hugh Rawson, Devious Derivations: Popular Misconceptions and More Than 1000 True Origins of Common Words and Phrases (Crown, 1994, reprint Castle Books, 2002)

Hugh Rawson is the author of such interesting volumes as: Rawson's Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk, Wicked Words, and Unwritten Laws: The Unofficial Rules of Life as Handed Down by Murphy and Other Sages. This book, Devious Derivations, is an amateur etymologist's treasure, debunking as it does popular etymologies for such words and phrases as posh, S.O.S, and the f-word. Hugh Rawson's careful research and citations will certainly settle many a late-night argument.

"Amateur" is the operative word, however. This is good, as it gives an overview of English word origins for those with no previous knowledge of the subject. In "An Introduction to Folk Etymology," Rawson lists several ways in which words come into English, and even more important, in which people think they come into English.

On the other hand, if makes for some peculiar entries. For example, who but an unilingual Anglophone with no exposure to any other language would have believed for an instant that the hurricane got its name because it hurries away from the cane plantations? I would almost be tempted to think Rawson had invented the idea for the pure pleasure of debunking it if I hadn't taken etymology with a couple of football players looking for easy credits back in the 1980s. (They were disappointed.)

There are a couple of odd omissions, too. For instance, while he gives several possible origins for "mind your P's and Q's," Rawson doesn't mention the one I have heard most often, the small p's and q in a typesetter's case of type. He also gives several possibilities for "three golden balls" as an emblem for pawnbrokers (p. 199) without mentioning that the original Roman Catholic pawnshops or monte di pietà in Italy took their symbol from the legend of St. Nicholas giving a poor family three sacks of gold so that the daughters would have dowries instead of being obliged to go on the streets.

All in all, though, Devious Derivations is fascinating, and I recommend it to anyone interested in languages.

Devious Derivations has an exhaustive bibliography and a complete index.

[Faith Cormier]

Hugh Rawson does not have any Web presence that I could find. With his wife Margaret Miner he has written: A Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare, A Dictionary of Quotations from the Bible and The New International Dictionary of Quotations. He also wrote An Investment in Knowledge with Hillier Krieghbaum.

If you enjoy this book, you might also like two works by Jeffrey Kacirk: Forgotten English: A Merry Guide to Antiquated Words, Packed with History, Fun Facts, Literary Excerpts, and Charming Drawings and Altered English: Surprising Meanings of Familiar Words.