Monday, November 10, 2014

Good stories vs. true stories

Good stories trump true stories. What happens with gossip also happens, more often than we might think, with history and the nightly news. Stories are told not necessarily because they are true but simply because they make good stories, which often means they conform with a particular bias.

Elizabeth Little comments on this power of good stories as it applies to language in her enchanting book Trip of the Tongue. The city of Puyallup, Wash., not far from Tacoma, obviously got its name from the Puyalllup Indian tribe from that area, but what does the word actually mean? The popular explanation is that the word means "generous people," and it is easy to see why that story would be popular. You can imagine what the local Chamber of Commerce might be able to do with it.

Yet Little found with a bit of research that the word actually means "bend at the bottom" or perhaps "bottom of the bend," which nicely describes where the city of Puyallup is located along a river. In other words, Puyallup, Wash., means about the same thing as South Bend, Ind. It's just harder to spell and harder to say and, because it is not an English word, opens the door for a better story.

Another example cited by Little has to do with the Chinese word for crisis. For years I have heard speakers point out that this word also means opportunity, the lesson being that a crisis, viewed in the right way, can also be an opportunity for positive change. That's a wonderful story, but Little points out that it's just not true.

Ambrose Burnside
Little's comments made me think of a couple of common words that have both been attributed to Civil War generals: hooker and sideburns. The popular story is that the men serving under Major Gen. Joseph Hooker spent so much of their off-duty time in brothels that prostitutes came to be called hookers. Not true. The slang term has been in use at least since 1845, several years before the Civil War.

As for sideburns, the story has this word going back to Gen. Ambrose Burnside, known for the prominent whiskers on the side of his head. Happily, this story turns out to be true, showing that sometimes, at least, a good story can also be the true story.

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