Three Cautionary Tales About Etymology
When you work with language, you soon learn to be sceptical about apparently obvious explanations for where words come from. I was reminded of this fact earlier today. In the shower, I had what I fondly believed to be a minor eureka moment concerning the origin of the word "metrosexual". We'd been watching episodes from Series 1 of Sex and the City
(by the way, these are infinitely better than the recent movie). Now "metrosexual" is clearly a combination of "metro" (city) and "sexual" (sex)... most of the guys in Sex and the City
are metrosexuals... the word "metrosexual" started appearing frequently in the late 90s... Sex and the City
also started around then. Surely this couldn't be a coincidence? But, after a quarter of an hour of googling, I had to admit it was. The word "metrosexual" was coined in 1994, by journalist Mark Simpson; Sex and the City
didn't appear until four years later. Basing the word on the TV series would have been witty, but doing it the other way round was just stupid. I gave up.
While shopping at Tesco, I thought about similar incidents. I loved the story we were told by our one-time au pair Isabel. Her father was on some committee, and the phrase "manual labour" came up in a document they were drafting. A woman objected on the grounds that it was sexist: it should be "personal labour". Isabel's father had to go and find a dictionary to convince her that "manual" has nothing to do with "man"; it comes from the Latin manus
, "hand", i.e. "done with the hands". The woman eventually gave in, but only after everyone else on the committee started laughing at her.
You're wondering what this has to do with Little Black Sambo
, but I've saved my best story for last. (Names and other details have been changed to protect the innocent). Suppose you're an American visiting Stockholm, and you're invited to a party. You find yourself next to a striking couple. She's obviously Swedish: tall, blonde, blue eyes. He's a hunky Denzel Washington lookalike. You introduce yourself. The woman tells you her name. Then she says, or at least she appears to say, "And this is my Sambo". His English doesn't seem to be so great; he just smiles and nods vaguely.
You're aghast at her casual racism and insensitivity, and move on as quickly as you can. But... I'm afraid you've just been involved in a linguistic friendly fire incident. English is notorious for lacking a commonly used word that means "person you live with and have sex with, but are not married to". Swedish doesn't have this problem, and, you've guessed it, the word is sambo
. It has absolutely nothing to do with the English word, and originally comes from the phrase SAMmanBOende under äktenskapsliknande förhållanden
- "living together in marriage-like circumstances". You can see why an abbreviation was introduced. Since there is no corresponding English expression and the Swedish one is so useful, Swedes, at least on their home ground, often use it even when speaking English.
Moral: just like any other consumer product, words often don't come from the place you think they do. Read the fine print on the package.