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| Thursday, March 23, 2017

I was poring through the newest volume of the Journal of Known Etymology (Vol. 9, April 2017), when I spied a few items that looked ripe for sharing with informed and educated readers. Please enjoy them in moderation and do not over-inflate your mind beyond recommended safe limits.

Red Herring

We are most familiar with “red herrings” as plot twists in detective stories contrived to mislead the audience into believing the wrong suspect committed the crime. One origin story is of a fugitive dragging a red herring (reddened when smoke cured), along the ground to set up a stronger misleading scent trail for hounds to follow. More likely is the explanation from the BBC nature series by David Attenborough, “Something Fishy,” rarely if ever seen in the U.S., which features dramatic footage of a pack of murderous sea lions chasing adorable herring across the North Atlantic. In one of evolution’s clever — albeit cruel — tricks, in each school of herring one or two fish are born bright red. The sea lions chase after the ruddy mutants and — to the sound of a solemn minor chord — the rosy fish are eaten by the pinnipeds while normally hued herring escape. Satiated by the altruistic fish, the sea lions move on, and the remaining fish swim free.

A red herring is also a type of logical fallacy, known in Latin as “ignoratio elenchi,” or “ignorance of refutation.” A person employing such a fallacy completely ignores the conclusion to be refuted. For example, in response to concerns about what recent tax returns might indicate regarding potential conflicts with, say, Russia, a (narrowly) elected official under scrutiny might produce — directly or via a likely leak — a 12-year-old partial tax return that puts the person in a supposedly positive light. This red herring of a response may well fool a dog or a sea lion, but cautious individuals should not be misled by the acrid smell of such an effort.

Partridge in a Pear Tree

This phrase, which is the stopping point for yet another mind-numbing verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” originated with British schoolboys gently poking fun at a beloved instructor. Apparently the old don was fond of blowing and rubbing his large, pear-shaped nose. In an effort to get at a dry and somewhat recalcitrant fleck of mucosa, he attempted to slyly slip a digit up one nostril. His vigorous exertions to loosen and retrieve the object were likened by certain of the lads under his care as “hunting for a partridge in the old pear tree.” Exactly how the phrase made its way into the rambling song about seasonal gifts is not clear. The song is sometimes touted as having been a way for persecuted Catholics in England to teach important religious traditions in a “coded” form, even though the Anglicans pretty much followed the same lessons, and the song apparently was French in origin. A more probable explanation is that the song was created as a method to extract confessions from prisoners, especially when delivered A cappella.


The use of acronyms has a long tradition, and many common words are attributed to the shorthand use of the initial letters of an underlying phrase. “Posh” is often endorsed as an abbreviation for “port out, starboard home,” this cabin location being perhaps cooler, with north-facing rooms favored by rich passengers traveling from Britain to India (apparently prior to the invention of window shades). This class-conscious explanation is well thought out, and likely incorrect. A more direct origin is the Romani, also known as Gypsy, term “posh,” meaning “half,” as in “half a crown.” If a performer found that amount tossed into an upturned hat (as opposed to a penny) then the contributor would indeed be seen as posh.

Another overwrought fictional acronym is “tips.” While many cherish the idea the word is an acronym for “to insure prompt service” or “to insure promptness” (for the singular “tip”), this is another word that is simply too simple to be accepted for what it is: a good old Anglo-Saxon word that means pretty much what it says, the tip or the top. Take a bit off the bill for a meal, add it back in to thank the wait-person, and there you have it. Here’s an etymological tip: If the word predates the 20th Century, odds are good it did not start out as an acronym, as the mania for acronymic compression is largely a product of more recent military and government nomenclature.

Take for example the Affordable Care Act, which has been shortened to the ACA, and even nicknamed “Obamacare,” as a contraction of Obama’s role in championing the ACA. Recent attempts to “repeal and replace” the ACA have produced the American Health Care Act. The AHCA sets itself apart with a four-letter acronym, even though “healthcare” is an acceptable word. One supposes the extra word was included to avoid the acronym “AHA,” the involuntary sound of surprise at how much or how little the AHCA actually changes the ACA, depending on whether or not you pay for your own healthcare. If the AHCA has any support at all, it comes largely from the conservative end of the political spectrum, so I propose it should more correctly be designated as the Conservative American Care Act or CACA. As CACA makes its way through the lengthy and convoluted halls of power, and the nation strains at its arrival, we anticipate CACA will be dragged across our path as a posh answer to our health problems. Red herrings are beginning to smell better already.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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