Pedantry about the truth

There are a lot of urban myths about, and many of them relate to the origins of words. The word posh, for example, is supposed to originate in an abbreviation for “port out starboard home”, which was written on posh people’s ferry tickets in the days of the Raj (that being the cooler side of the ship). Except it wasn’t; there’s no evidence at all that any shipping company ever used that abbreviation, and the word posh, it seems most likely (though, granted, its origins are uncertain), comes from thieves’ slang, where it seems to have been borrowed from Romany.

This morning I heard another one repeated, by someone I’d only just met. This one was about marmalade, which, it was claimed, may derive from the sentence “Marie est malade”. The person who mentioned this added that it may not be true. I happened to know that it almost certainly wasn’t; that this is a well known myth with no grounding in evidence (it helps in this case that we do have a pretty good idea where the word comes from). And I said this, that this story is in fact pretty definitely not true. And I felt like a dick even as I heard the words coming out of my mouth. Did I need to spoil a good story with the truth? Does it matter that people might go away thinking something might be the case about the word marmalade, when it isn’t?

Now, obviously there are some myths that are worth busting there and then. To take a very extreme example: we should do our best to stop people thinking that having sex with virgins cures HIV. And there are lots of other beliefs that can actually cause harm. This website is a good resource for people interested in how much harm myths and bad science can cause.

Even some myths about word origins can be harmful; if people feel forced to resign for using a word that some people (wrongly) think is racist, then these latter people should be told they’re wrong (luckily, in this case, they were and the man was rehired). But what about myths that are pretty clearly not harmful, but just happen not to be true, despite being passed off as such? Should we just keep shtum, or is it always worth putting things right?

Interestingly, I think the drive to put people straight in these circumstances is the same drive that makes people retell the myths in the first place. And sometimes, of course, you can be wrong too. But that’s not really the point. Do you have the same impulse? Do you feel bad about it? Do you try to rein it in? Have you ever done this and been wrong yourself? Most importantly: does it matter if claims that aren’t true get propagated if no one’s getting hurt by it?



Filed under Thoughts and rants

4 responses to “Pedantry about the truth

  1. So word origin myths are pervasive memes?

  2. i had a feeling this was going to come up.

  3. Intellectually, I'd say that a willingness (sometimes even eagerness) to believe in false – or even just evidence-free – claims in general is an open door for more dangerous false beliefs. So to that extent, any move toward truth is a good move, even if the particular belief has little real-world effect.Emotionally, I simply feel that truth is important in itself, and any falsehood – propogated cynically or through simple ignorance – does violence to the truth and should therefore be avoided or corrected.But, as you say, the key is knowing how to do that without being an ass.d

  4. This is one that I often get pulled up on, as I do it a lot. Nearly as often though, I get asked to arbitrate between competing memes (usually in pubs), as people trust me not to claim something as truth if I haven't checked.I like having the reputation of being trustworthy. I like to think I'm not too much of a dick about it, but if I am sometimes considered one, I think it's worth it.

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