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Book review: Origins of the Specious by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman

By Ana Trask

In Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman take readers on an exciting tour of a mythological etymological landscape. Prepare to have your illusions shattered. “You may kick and scream…when you find that many of your most cherished beliefs about English are as phony as a three-dollar bill,” the authors warn before they rip apart the veil.

If you think the British language is “purer” than the American version, you’re mistaken. If you think SOS stands for Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship, you are not alone…just horribly incorrect. But surely beginning sentences with a conjunction is a modern phenomenon, right? Wrong. Axe another question. Before you tell me that I made a mistake in the previous sentence, I must tell you that axe is the original spelling and pronunciation of ask.

At the risk of fanning the flames, I’m sorry to inform you that ain’t used to be a legitimate contraction of am not and are not; toupée is a fake French word; and the grammarian who first suggested we use he as a universal pronoun to refer to both men and women was—gasp!—a woman.