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Inquiring Minds: It’s All in a Word

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With pop culture changing at such a rapid pace, it’s no wonder our language changes with the times as well. Here today, gone tomorrow as they say. I wonder where that phrase came from?

Barry Popik has made it his passion to discover word and phrase etymology. A lawyer and writer, Popik is a contributor to the “Oxford English Dictionary,” “Dictionary of American Regional English,” “Historical Dictionary of American Slang,” “Yale Book of Quotations” and “Dictionary of Modern Proverbs.” Since 1990 he has also been a regular contributor to Gerald Cohen’s newsletter, “Comments on Etymology.” He is recognized as an expert on the origins of the terms Big Apple, Windy City, hot dog and many other food terms, and he is an editor of the “Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.”

Popik has often used the Library of Congress’s historic American newspaper database, “Chronicling America,” to uncover the truth behind our idioms.

While living in New York, Popik really became interested in etymology while doing his own work on the origin of “the Big Apple.”

“I felt that it was important enough to find the exact source and to find out if people were still living who knew anything on the subject,” he said.

That one phrase launched a hobby that would also later spawn a blog of the same name with more than 8,500 entries on the etymology of words.

“My website features Americanisms, and I prefer modern terms,” he said. “If it’s an expression used in the newspaper or on popular blogs, I’ll try to find its origin. I’m interested in terms about New York (where I used to live), Texas (where I now live), finance, politics, sports, food and the media.”

Most of Popik’s work was originally done using resources at the New York Public Library in the 1990s, “before blogs and Google and just about everything we’ve grown accustomed to.” However, he would find himself heading to the Library of Congress every few months to research the things he couldn’t find at NYPL.

“Most notably, I debunked the myth that Chicago’s nickname, ‘the Windy City,’ was born because of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he explained. “I showed that the term was popularized by the Cincinnati newspapers in the 1860s.”

He looked to the Library’s cookbooks and old telephone books to research food and food names. “I found ‘sub’ sandwiches that were first cited from Delaware sandwich shops.”

Popik’s blog lists more than 220 posts on word origins that reference “Chronicling America.”

“I use every tool that I can get,” he said. “I prefer to cite free resources, so that any reader of my work can make a click and find the original article. Things change and technology certainly changes, but they’re both the same idea. It’s nice to know there’s a place where you can find this stuff.”

One of Popik’s interesting discoveries using Chronicling America concerned the word “hamburger.” When he first moved to Texas in late 2006, a legislator was trying to push a bill through that stated “hamburger” was first popularized by Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

“I tried to tell everyone that the story was bogus, but no one would respond to me and the bill passed into law unopposed,” he said.

According to Popik, “Chronicling America” shows that “hamburger steak sandwiches” were served in Shiner, Texas, in April 1894, before Fletcher Davis arrived in Athens and well before the 1904 World’s Fair.

“Words and phrases have an origin and a reason for being – it’s a history,” he concluded. “Meanings can change, and nothing is fixed forever. But if people don’t know the history of words and names and phrases, then they have no guide.

“People these days have been citing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, but in many cases, I’ve found that the quotations were really modern inventions. What did Thomas Jefferson really say about guns or about banking? To some people that might be trivia, but we live under documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that are composed of words and phrases. It sure would be nice to know what they mean.”

Comments (2)

  1. Really cool! Very interesting!

  2. What is the modern way of determining what slang is is within the confines of standard English and how does one distinguish between what is acceptable and unacceptable jargon.. As a former English as a Second Language teacher I am interested in this field and its application to Special Education.

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