Port Out Starboard Home

Ever cared about the origins of the word gadget? Or helicopter? Guinea pig, maybe? Sure, the search engine of your least mistrust might provide you with some insight but in some cases, and that’s one of the points made in the book Port Out Starboard Home by Michael Quinion, the background is based on folk etymology and not to be taken seriously.

Here’s a quote from the introduction chapter:

We are suckers for a really good story - it’s one way we make sense of the world around us and so turn the unfamiliar (which is much the same thing as the dangerous and the frightening) into the known and the comfortable.

Michael Quinion runs World Wide Words, a site - according to the site’s description in the “Select Webliography”1 - fully dedicated to “aspects of language and word history”. I happen to visit the site every once in a while. Although not primarily dedicated to the correct usage of the English language, this site is a very valuable resource to me2.

But I digress. The book Port Out Starboard Home has been on my bookshelf for a couple of months now and although I’m not the etymology die-hard to read it from cover to cover I use to have a look at it from time to time and enjoy the fascinating descriptions of the etymology of a handpicked selection of English words3.

The book is organized like a dictionary, i.e. the entries are sorted alphabetically, starting from Akimbo to Zzxjoanw4. The title of the book itself is an allusion to the legend of the origin of the English word posh.

I have heard and read people explain the supposed meaning many times before. After all, it is a nice story that makes good conversation. But no longer, the book debunks the story as the legend it (according to the rationale presented) is.

Another interesting aspect about the book is that it is published using the title Port Out Starboard Home on all markets word-wide except the U.S. On the U.S. domestic market, the book is published using the title Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.

Whatever reason for this unconventional separation exists, the U.S. title at least isn’t wrong. The etymology of all three words is explained in the book. I checked.

  1. Until I got my hands on this book, I had no idea that the word webliography existed. But somehow it does make sense, after all.

  2. When looking for advice, especially regarding questions outside your native language, a site run by someone who really cares about language can’t be that wrong.

  3. More often than not, the origins of the words turn out to be ancient languages. And in some cases, you might jump to the conclusion that a specific word has its root in gaelic, latin or greek and then Quinion cleverly reasons why in this particular case you might be wrong and uncovers the real origin.

  4. No kidding!