Terminological precedence

In a comment on my posting on john ‘prostitute’s client’, Michael  Vnuk objects to my use of narratophile in that posting:

I wondered if you had made up ‘narratophile’ (simply ‘lover of stories’), so I checked and found that ‘narratophilia’ (not in the OED) already has a more specific fetish meaning (eg see Wikipedia). Perhaps a different word is needed for the general sense you want. It is certainly a useful concept, not only for folk etymology, but also for any other time that people develop a story to explain something. Such a word may be already out there, but I couldn’t find it quickly.

The idea here is that the first use of some expression takes precedence over other uses, so that new inventions (even transparent ones) are banned. This is a very silly idea, barring ambiguity (whereas ambiguity is all over the place — it’s a central feature of language —  and is managed by interpretation in context).

The other sense of narratophilia:

Narratophilia is a sexual fetish, in which the telling of dirty and obscene words or stories to a partner is sexually arousing. The term is also used for arousal by means of listening to obscene words and stories (link)

My sense, from a 2009 posting:

The usual story about the word foamer is that it comes from the verb foam, as in “foam at the mouth”, used here to describe intense enthusiasm. But Friedman quoted someone who offered a much more complex story, which to my nose stinks of invention (whether deliberate and playful or else innocent but gullible). The fact is, people like stories, very particular ones, and find appeals to general tendencies (to metonymy, metaphor, semantic generalization or restriction, whatever) unsatisfying — even that’s what scholars of word and phrase origins mostly have to offer.

… In postings to ADS-L a long time ago [March 2000], I called this idea narratophilia ‘love of stories’ (yes, I know there’s another sense, which is not relevant here), and noted how powerful it was. Human beings are story-tellers. As Erving Goffman once observed, we spend an enormous amount of time telling each other the stories of our lives. We use stories to make sense of things.

A follow-up on foamer:

Stories — especially complex ones with specific persons mentioned and other specific details provided — are satisfying. People love stories, as I said in my earlier foamer posting (where I called this love of stories narratophilia), and so they concoct etymythological narratives. (The term etymythology is Larry Horn’s, from a 2004 American Speech article, “Spitten image: Etymythology and fluid dynamics”.) The scholarly literature on word and phrase origins is chock-full of thoughtful discussions of etymythologies, especially narrative ones, like the foamer story I posted about earlier.

Another posting here, and then one on Chink:

The guiding principle behind etymythology is narratophilia: a good story is better than a dull one, even if the dull one’s the truth (some postings here, here, and here). The story about slit-eyed or slant-eyed people vs. round-eyed people (note folk anatomy here) is simply more interesting, hence more believable to some people, than derivation from Chinese.

Some highlights from the 2000 ADS-L discussion, which started with halls of ivy. Fred Shapiro quoted an inquirer:

I am asking for your help.  The phrase halls of ivy has few references in encyclopedias or dictionaries. Somewhere I remember hearing that it referred to the Roman numeral IV for the four original universities in this country. Surely it is not simply from the tradition of planting university buildings with ivy?


I don’t have an answer yet, but I find this question amusing since it is so emblematic of popular attitudes toward etymology. Sort of the opposite of Occam’s Razor, as an extremely far-fetched explanation is advanced while the obvious and undoubtedly truthful explanation is prefaced with”Surely it is not simply from…”

James Clapp suggested paranoia, but Larry Horn moved to narratophilia:

A more positive spin is that humans love explanations, especially elegant ones– even incorrect or unsubstantiated elegant ones. I’m not sure it’s necessarily paranoia; I see it as stemming from the same impulse that leads to mythological and, dare I say, religious “explanation” of the otherwise inexplicable. It’s an instance of the general human impulse to try to rationalize the (apparently) irrational, or to access the inaccessible (inaccessible, at least, if one doesn’t have the relevant training in the relevant science).  What we’re dealing with here (e.g. with IV League/Halls of IV) is invented etymology but not true folk etymology, since our inventors aren’t really the “folk” who are responsible for the standard examples of motivated reanalysis — ‘sparrow grass’ (for ‘asparagus’) or more recently ‘shoe-in’ (very popular during the recent NCAA selection projection shows) or ‘bonified’.  Our cases are more like the $250 Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe, the alligators in the NYC sewers, and other urban legends, and as with those cases the internet seems a particularly fertile breeding ground. One nice domain for these pseudo-etymologies is that of the pseudo-acronym [examples follow]

And I followed:

Not to deny this, exactly, but to put a slightly different (but still positive) spin on it: humans love explanations that are *stories*, with *characters* in them.  (mythological and religious explanations largely fall into this category.)

Hmmm…maybe there’s a place for a scholarly paper here. Narratotropism [or for a somewhat sexier title, The Narratophilic Impulse] in Popular Etymology.

Then Dennis Preston:

Narratophilia is particularly rife in place-name legends. I did a study in just a small area of Southern Indiana years ago and turned up wonders for Buena Vista, Birdseye, Gnaw Bone, Laconia (the people there are laconic), Palmyra (Palmyra is a Shawnee word meaning “big sink” because there are lots of sink-holes in those parts, one of which a cow fell through one day in plain sight of amazed bystanders), and on and on.

But the best is Paoli. A Swede ran the toll-road that went through there, goes the story…

And Grant Barrell widened the scope:

I’d like to encourage anyone who writes what is bound to be an interesting paper not to overlook the use of creation myths in novels, screenplays, etc., as representations of “narratophilia.” It’s a standard, conscious device, and regular part of a writer’s block-breaking tricks: when stuck, write a character profile outlining background and temperament. That invented life story will lead you to motives and possible future actions of the character. It amounts to creating and solving your own mysteries, which has lately been my belief in the cause of spurious etymologies (the mystery is created by willfully ignoring things like dictionaries and libraries).

I tend to define “creation myths” broadly. I think cross-over television shows (in which characters from two different shows share a character or overlapping plot) and fictional historical adjustments also fit the term. Think of the movie “Forrest Gump.” It was filled with the kinds of he-was-there-when-it-happened stories: the speech on the Mall, Apple Computer, I dunno what all. J. R. R. Tolkien in “The Hobbit” mentions that Bilbo’s grand-something-or-other knocked the head of off an orc and created golf. (It stands out as somewhat of a blight, in my opinion, as his only obvious attempt to connect his fantasy world with the real world. The non-obvious attempts are the ways in which he borrowed from old languages and legends to flesh out his invented world).

Creation myths are hard to resist on the part of writers, and like regular folks, they like most of all to integrate their characters with known-true events and people and places. This also, I think, explains a lot of fan-fiction and even legitimate extensions of such literature as the Sherlock Holmes stories. Habitually, the non-Conan Doyle additions to the Holmes stories are simply trying to explain some oblique line in the original stories at length. They are defining the undefined and borrowing credibility. Urban legends, too, fit this pattern: “My friend’s brother said…”

Which leads me to my main point, and reflects something that Ron Butters said a while back in response to a lazy query to the list: these mysterious “undefined” terms seem to arise because of fear of the library. It’s easier to invent and a hell of a lot more fun, or, failing that, get somebody to do your research for you.

Discussion then turned to some specific examples, including Cooter Brown. From Wikipedia:

Cooter Brown, sometimes given as Cootie Brown, is a name used in metaphors and similes for drunkenness, mostly in the southern United States. Cooter Brown supposedly lived on the line which divided the North and South during the American Civil War, making him eligible for military draft by either side. He had family on both sides of the line, so he did not want to fight in the war. He decided to get drunk and stay drunk for the duration of the war so that he would be seen as useless for military purposes and would not be drafted. Ever since, colloquial and proverbial ratings of drunkenness have been benchmarked against the legendary drinker: “as drunk as Cooter Brown” or “drunker than Cooter Brown.”

I added one more:

A college friend, from Louisville …, used a number of comparisons with personal names, like Cooter Brown, in them.  The only one  I recall now is “colder than / as cold as Miss Mamie Johnson’s room” (frequently said of my senior-year dormitory room, which was at the top of a tower in a 19th-century building and was not at all effectively heated).

It did occur to me at the time to write a short story in which all of these folks were gathered together.

And continued:

Ordinary people invariably assume that proverbial expressions with personal names in them originated as references to actual persons bearing those names, and to salient characteristics of those persons. So “drunk as Cooter Brown” *has to* allude to an actual sot named Cooter Brown; then it’s part of the business of historical linguists to try to ferret out just who that Cooter Brown was.  (Alternatively, Cooter Brown could have been a character in a piece of popular fiction — not an actual person, but as near as makes no difference. The task of the historical linguist remains just the same.) This is just ordinary narratophilia.

But this isn’t necessarily the case. Folks don’t just re-tell stories; they also *invent* them on the spot. Plenty of people are everyday fabulists, and are perfectly capable of creating a name that somehow “sounds right” — the same way that writers and lyricists create names (Elizabeth Bennet, Eleanor Rigby, etc.). It’s enough that the name evoke some bit of cultural stuff, and then it can spread from person to person.

Ordinary people just *hate* to hear this idea. There’s an expression “friend of Dorothy” meaning ‘homosexual person’, there has to have been a Dorothy who was associated with homosexuals.  (Alan Bérubé reports in Coming Out Under Fire that the FBI believed so deeply in this idea that they spent some significant resources trying to track down homosexuals by searching for the elusive Dorothy.)  But there’s no reason to assume this at all, any more than there’s reason to think that generic vocatives like “Joe” and “Mac” had to originate as references to specific men with these names. All that had to happen was for someone to pick “Dorothy” as a name that sounded plausible as the name of a [note use of subcultural technical term] fag hag and then use it with acquaintances in a coded reference to homosexuality.

My inclination is to think that there’s a lot more individual creativity in language use than most folks credit, so i’m more than a bit wary about starting a search for the real-life (or fictional) Dorothy or Miss Mamie Johnson.

Well, of course, you have to try. But what happens when the leads peter out?  The expression gets labeled “of unknown origin”, and it counts as a *failure* of etymology. (Non-linguists are regularly peeved about how much we scholars just *don’t know*, and they sure don’t like to be told that some things are probably in principle unknowable.)

What’s to be done? Well, it would help to have some studies where a nonce creation is actually traced spreading through a small speech community and into wider use. Yes, I know, hard to do.

One Response to “Terminological precedence”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    I don’t think my original comment ‘objects’ to your usage of ‘narratophilia’. Rather, I wondered whether it was the best choice.

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