This week something rare, old fashioned, scholarly, and entertaining arrived via the U.S. Postal Service. As usual, I’m postponing other tasks until I have read it cover to cover.
It’s a journal you’ve probably never heard of: Comments on Etymology.
Rare I call it, because the journal has very few subscribers. And old fashioned, because it’s only on paper. It’s not available on the Internet.
For more than four decades, Comments on Etymology has been one of the least known and most enjoyable scholarly journals in the field of linguistics. And it’s the No. 1 source for the study of American slang.
Indeed, for anyone seriously interested in the origins of words, especially slang, Comments on Etymology is indispensable. And for anyone not so seriously interested, it’s still entertaining and engaging.
That’s because the journal engages readers in the search for origins of words and phrases. Over the years it has devoted many pages to presenting evidence and (sometimes daring) hypotheses for the true origins of terms like:
—windy city as a nickname for Chicago, the earliest example of which the researcher Barry Popik found in a Cincinnati newspaper of 1880;
—the Big Apple, New York City’s nickname, which began in the 1920s as a horse-racing or vaudevillian appellation for the city;
—hot dog, with evidence from New Jersey as early as 1892, and which at Yale in 1895 became college humor, thanks to the rumor that sausages were made of dog meat;
—jazz, which began around 1913 as baseball slang in California before it migrated to music in Chicago and New Orleans. Really! Hard to believe, but hard to argue against page after page of primary sources.
Just a few of the other expressions considered in recent years are rock and roll, red herring, limerick, I’ve got your number, jinx, hooker, mulligan, dude, and brass tacks.
The current issue points to Stephen Foster’s song “Old Black Joe” as the source of Joe as a nickname for coffee. And the previous issue has 54 pages of materials for the study of children’s speech: its influence on adult speech, the appeal of repetition for children, origins of children’s words, and children’s folk etymology (logical misinterpretations, like “where Selda misheard” for “where seldom is heard” in “Home on the Range”).
What makes the journal so entertaining is, first of all, copious quotations from original sources, and second, lively discussions of the evidence, often leading to revised explanations. That’s because, in the words of Editor Gerald Cohen in a recent issue:
“Comments on Etymology … is a series of working papers, a sort of etymological workshop where ideas can be tested and developed (with valuable feedback provided) before being presented formally to the scholarly community.”
As befits working papers, each issue of the journal is a collection of letter-size pages, stapled in the corner, the format it has had from the beginning. There are eight issues each academic year.
It’s a rare publication indeed. You’re unlikely to find Comments on Etymology in your university library or on a colleague’s bookshelf. Cohen explains, “The number of subscribers is very low, primarily because I haven’t publicized the publication and have been content to mail the issues to whoever is interested.” But he adds, “If a few new subscribers come along, they will be very welcome.”
If you’d like to get that welcome, here’s what to do: Send a check for $16 (if an individual; $20 if an institution), payable to Comments on Etymology, to:
Department of Arts, Languages, and Philosophy
Missouri University of Science and Technology
Rolla, MO 65409
Now please excuse me. I need to go back to the article on Joe to see what the U.S. Navy had to do with popularizing that term.