Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Richard Cohen makes demonstrably false linguistic claims, and the Washington Post lets him

Richard Cohen has written a characteristically terrible column, this time on tipping, where (among other crimes) he gives the term a hilariously implausible etymology:
The practice originated with European aristocracy, whence the term itself comes — “To Insure Promptitude,” thus TIP.
Cohen's factoid immediately struck me as extremely unlikely - among other reasons because I can't think of any instances of the old English aristocracy indulging in acronym. It has usually been the province of bureaucratic institutions like corporations, governments and militaries. Moreover, as lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower notes, "Acronyms are extremely rare before the 1930s, and etymologies of this sort - especially for older words - are almost always false."

I figured I was in for a tedious research project, but out of curiosity I followed Cohen's link, which led to this:
An old story attributes the word “tip” to an acronym in British coffeehouses, where coin bowls had signs that said “To Insure Promptitude.”
That is already quite different than what Cohen wrote!  Nothing here claims the acronym as the word's origin, nor does it attribute that acronym to the European aristocracy. This passage, too, linked to another article, so I followed the trail to the New York Times:
While the precise origin of tipping is uncertain, it is commonly traced to Tudor England, according to “Tipping,” Kerry Segrave’s history of the custom. By the 17th century, it was expected that overnight guests to private homes would provide sums of money, known as vails, to the host’s servants. Soon after, customers began tipping in London coffeehouses and other commercial establishments. One frequented by Samuel Johnson had a bowl printed with the words “To Insure Promptitude,” and some speculate that “tip” is an acronym for this phrase.
Set aside, for a moment, that Cohen's source explicitly declares that the word's etymology is uncertain. Even if we accept the Johnson etymology, what does this have to do with the English aristocracy? Johnson was not an aristocrat. Nor was there anything particularly aristocratic about the coffee houses of Johnson's time; in fact, decades before, Charles II had tried to shut them down as "places where the disaffected met".

As far as I can tell, Cohen seems to have made up out of whole cloth this entire aristocratic origin of tipping, presumably to imbue the practice he's defending with some kind of imaginary historical prestige. I challenge Cohen and anyone at the Washington Post to identify any credible source in the known universe giving the word any kind of aristocratic origin. As noted, a basic understanding of the sociolectic conventions of the European aristocracy make the entire tale extremely unlikely on its face, and in the absence of any sourcing to the claim whatsover one can only conclude that Cohen pulled it out of thin air.

That said, it's worth noting that even the Times account of the Johnson story does not actually propose the acronym as an origin - it can just as easily be understood as a jokey backronym, in much the same way that many Americans have retroactively recast Ford as an acronym for "Fix Or Repair Daily." More to the point, few linguists accept the Johnson story as particularly likely. A simple glance at the Online Etymology Dictionary spells this out:
The popularity of the tale of the word's supposed origin as an acronym in mid-18th century English taverns seems to be no older than Frederick W. Hackwood's 1909 book "Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England," where it was said to stand for To insure promptitude (in the form to insure promptness the anecdote is told from 1946). A reviewer of the book in the "Athenaeum" of Oct. 2, 1909, wrote, "We deprecate the careless repetition of popular etymologies such as the notion that "tip" originated from an abbreviated inscription on a box placed on the sideboard in old coaching-inns, the full meaning of which was "To Insure Promptitude."
This is not, in other words, a particularly obscure piece of linguistic trivia. Anyone with a basic understanding of English etymology would instinctively be suspicious of it, anyone who bothered to consult his claimed sources would immediately see how much of the etymology Cohen was straight-up inventing, and anyone who looked at a simple etymological dictionary would immediately see that even the germ of the story is just a ridiculous exercise in folk etymology.

So is the Washington Post simply willing to print literally anything Richard Cohen says, no matter how patently implausible and demonstrably untrue? How does this man still have a column?