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Exploring 'Myths and Misconceptions' of the English Language

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we're back with Pat O'Conner, co-author of the new book "Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language."

RS: For instance, consider English's lack of -- as she puts it -- "an all-purpose male-female singular-plural pronoun." As a result, people often use "they" instead of "he" or "she" to avoid sounding sexist. The rules tell us to use "they" only in plural situations. But Pat O'Conner says this has not always been so.

PAT O'CONNER: "A lot of people think that since time immemorial, 'he' has been the acceptable default pronoun -- 'he' alone for whether you're talking about a man or a woman. And this actually isn't true.

"This convention was invented in the mid seventeen hundreds by, interestingly enough, a female grammarian, Anne Fisher, the first female grammarian. And she was bothered because people had been using 'they' as a default pronoun for both singular and plural. People had been doing this since the thirteen hundreds."

RS: "As you did research for this book and looked at the trends and the words, did you see anything that would describe or illuminate the American character? I mean, were there any surprises to you?"

PAT O'CONNER: "Yeah, there were -- quite a few. I think a lot of Americans are more than a bit apologetic about their language. They assume that British English is somehow purer or better than American English. And the truth is that at the time the colonies divided from England, the two Englishes were pretty much alike, naturally.

"The English that was preserved here in the United States preserved a lot of the characteristics of British English of the eighteenth century that the British have since lost, including the original accents. For instance, the British didn't start dropping their r's until about the late seventeen nineties into the early eighteen hundreds. So, a lot of people who ask me 'When did Americans lose their British accents?' are very surprised to find that we never had them. In fact, if anything, the British lost their American accents."

AA: We asked Pat O'Conner about some other common misconceptions.

PAT O'CONNER: "This is a pretty minor one, but a lot of Americans think that the word caesarean -- for caesarean section -- comes from Julius Caesar because he was born by caesarean section. That actually isn't true. He could not have been, because his mother, Aurelia, survived him at least until he was in his forties."

AA: "Meaning back then she would have died."

PAT O'CONNER: "One hundred B.C. There is no record of -- "

RS: "A caesarean."

PAT O'CONNER: "Anyone surviving a caesarean."

AA: "So why is the procedure called a caesarean section?"

PAT O'CONNER: "It probably comes from the Latin word caeso (KYE-zoh), meaning a cut, or the verb is caedere, to cut.

"Another one is that the expression 'rule of thumb,' many people believe that this expression is a reference to an old English common law that allowed a husband to beat his wife with a rod or stick no thicker than his thumb. It's complete myth. For one thing, there never was any such law either in English or American law. And, two, the expression 'rule of thumb' dates back to at least the sixteen hundreds when it was simply a reference to the old practice of using parts of the body as rough units of measure.

"For instance, the adult male foot is a foot long. That's where we get the word 'foot' for the measurement. The thumb was about an inch wide at the knuckle. That was considered a 'thumb's breadth.' And a 'rule of thumb' meant any practice that's just done as a rough estimation. That was called a rule of thumb. That was in the language for a long time before any such claim was made about domestic abuse. In fact, it wasn't linked with that expression until nineteen seventy."

AA: You can learn about other myths and misconceptions of the English language in the new book "Origins of the Specious" by Pat O'Conner and her husband Stewart Kellerman.

RS: You can find the first part of our interview at And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.