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Leaps of Faith: Or Word Myths

Marc Palatucci, Intern

In my family, there is a story that has been told and retold countless times over the past few decades. It involves my grandfather Oscar. As the story goes, a young, robust Oscar climbs the ladder to the high dive at the local public swimming pool with a lit cigarette tucked firmly between his lips. Eventually he makes his way to the lofty platform, and approaches the edge. At this point he pauses, and with his hands at his sides, manipulates his mouth in such a way as to flip the still burning cigarette backwards, gripping the butt between his teeth, clenching his lips shut, and leaving the ember hovering precariously above his tongue.
He then leaps from the diving board, holding his breath along with the onlookers as he plummets, eventually plunging into the water below. Upon surfacing, he spins the cigarette back out of his mouth, and exhales a triumphant billow of smoke, to the delight and awe of the spectators. Now, as the years have passed, I cannot help but question the veracity of this story. Of course any tale that travels by word of mouth will develop certain idiosyncrasies with each telling, but even the facts of this account seem hard to believe. Nevertheless, I see it as an heirloom of sorts, and I tell it fondly, if incredulously.

Along with the family lore, another inheritance of mine is an avid love of words. During my childhood, dinner table conversation was rife with obscure vocabulary, lighthearted debates on grammar and usage, and inevitably the stories of how words and phrases came to be. These stories, or etymologies, were always fanciful, and revealed to me the boundless level of imagination embedded in our language. With this sense of fascination about linguistic histories instilled in me from a young age, I was instantly curious when David Wilton’s book Word Myths landed on my desk. I was at once enthralled and repelled. You see, throughout my studies and conversations on linguistics, I had heard whispers here and there that certain of the etymological tales that had delighted me as a child were not entirely accurate. Now here was a book, a legitimate, well researched book, designed to discount those stories. The integrity of my childhood was at stake! Nonetheless, my curiosity prevailed, and I dove in. Much to my relief, the dear recollections from my youth were not corrupted or denatured. Rather, the book was teeming with captivating linguistic legends, with some of the substantiated anecdotes proving more whimsical than those that were fabricated. Alas, I could no longer believe in good conscience that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, as I had been told, but all was not lost. It turns out some Eskimo languages do have many words for snow, in the same way English has many words for water (ocean, sound, brook, rivulet, cascade, and so on). Thus, there was some kernel of truth at the heart of the myth.

It turned out the doubts I had feared about the fictitious etymologies were no more damaging than my doubts about the legend of my grandfather’s aquatic feat. The mere bounds of reality simply cannot detract from stories so great. With words and stories both, there are no fine lines or distinct boundaries of meaning. That is the very source of their wonder. Stories are not always intended to convey facts, but to stimulate the mind. Myths are invented to explain and describe the unfathomable and ineffable, swapping fact for metaphor. It is a debate of the scientist versus the poet, but my allegiance lies somewhere between the two. A day will come when I sit around the dinner table with children of my own, and I will most certainly let my imagination get the better of me. Yes, I will regale them with tales of their great grandfather’s high dive daredevilry, and I will probably cite some statistical hyperbole on Eskimo linguistics for good measure. I will not be lying to them, I will be entertaining them, enthusiastically so, and without pause, taking solace in the fact that the best stories are always, quite literally, incredible.

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