Annals of etymythology: to pass for

In a Harper’s Magazine review (Dec. 2014, pp. 84-6) of Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Harvard) by Joshua Cohen, we read about the sad history of “black” people passing as “white”, with a story about the origin of the usage:

The term “passing” seems to come from the passes that slaves had to carry, which allowed them to visit their relatives on other plantations or when they were rented out for day labor.

Lexicographers and linguists will immediately smell a rat: the story is detailed and grounded in a very specific piece of history (and so is attractive to many people). But it’s only too specific: in fact, the usage is quite general, not restricted to blacks passing for whites, or to situations where some sort of pass is involved. Cohen’s account looks like an etymythology (aka mythetymology).

The verbal idiom pass for/as. Start with NOAD2, which has a subentry for the verb pass:

[no obj.] (pass as/for)  be accepted as or taken for: he could pass for a native of Sweden.

NOAD2 groups this usage with ‘succeed’ senses of pass (‘pass, go past’ some criterion, as in passing a test). More details from OED3 (June 2005):

to pass for (also as) : to be taken for or to serve as (usually with the implication of being something else); to be accepted or received as equivalent to.

with a first cite from 1463, one from Shakespeare in 1600, and this nice one from Addison in 1711: “sometimes pass for a Jew in the Assembly of Stock-Jobbers at Jonathan’s”. The usage has nothing to do with the noun pass ‘a card, ticket, or permit giving authorization for the holder to enter or have access to a place, form of transportation, or event’ (NOAD2) — beyond a shared ultimate historical source in a verb denoting motion past some point (Middle English, borrowed from French).

Narratophilia and etymythology. The account Cohen gives for to pass for/as is an invention — not necessarily Cohen’s, but more likely an idea he picked up from Hobbs or from some other lexicographically naive source. Two components for this account: an attractive story, and a story specifically about etymology.

From earlier postings, starting with one of 4/4/09 about foamers ‘enthusiastic railfans’, where I noted:

The fact is, ordinary people (who are not scholars of word and phrase origins) tend to think that

A good story is better than the truth.

In postings to ADS-L a long time ago, I called this idea narratophilia ‘love of stories’

The story there connected the term not to foaming at the mouth, but to a more vivid story about “the formation of copious amounts of foam in back washes and eddies along the river, a favorite place for rail buffs and photographers”.

Then in a 11/10/09 posting, we get an even more elaborate story, with (among other things) a preposterous acronymic etymology for the variant term foamites ‘foamers’, taken to be from “Far Out and Mentally Incompetent Train Enthusiasts”. With the note

(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

The sad history of passing. Cohen on Hobbs’s book:

The book is an admirable effort to catalogue the myriad classifications of race in America, to develop a taxonomy of biases that endure even as the country’s complexion changes.

What makes the history sad:

If whiteness, in Hobbs’s reading, initially meant liberation from oppression, it later meant a severance from community and folkways.

Passing means choosing exile, as in the title of Hobbs’s book.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: