One book, two titles. It’s called Port Out Starboard Home everywhere but in the US, where its title is Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds.
It’s published in paperback by Penguin in the UK and by HarperCollins in the USA. Use the links at the bottom of the page to buy the paperback editions. The hardback editions are also still available.
You’re with this friend, and you get talking about language, probably because one of you has just uttered some expression that you’ve never thought about before. Your friend tells you an interesting story about where the saying comes from.
The story is convincing, often backed up with extraneous but significant detail drawn from the teller’s personal experience or background knowledge. You’re impressed with your friend’s superior knowledge about language and history. At the next opportunity, you mention the story to somebody else. Each time you do so, or hear somebody else repeat it, the tale becomes more familiar — above all, more true. After a while, it’s as though you have always known it. You may become even a little possessive about it, so that somebody who attempts to argue differently seems to be telling you that you’re a fool and that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
We’re suckers for a really good story — it’s one way we make sense of the world around us and so turn the unfamiliar (which is much the same thing as the dangerous and the frightening) into the known and the comfortable. So it’s important that we have stories that explain things, but it’s much less important that the stories we tell are verifiably true. Much of this book is a testament to that insouciance about origins.
Some experts call the creation of such stories about the origins of words popular etymology or folk etymology. A large part of this book retells such mythic tales and also tries to find and explain the true stories behind them. You might like to think of it as illustrations of the imaginative ways in which people work hard to make sense of the unknown.
“There’s an enjoyable nugget on almost every page.” (FT Magazine, 3 July 2004)
“He tracks down a phrase and pins it down with a wit as sharp as a tack.” (Metro 14 July 2004)
“Every page of this book is a sheer delight.” (The Catholic Herald, 16 July 2004)
“This is a marvellous and original book, erudition without tears.” (Spectator, 31 July 2004).
“Quinion’s chatty and erudite book should sit nicely next to Fowler, Brewer and Partridge.” (Dianne Dempsey, The Age, Melbourne, 2 Oct. 2004.)
“Whether he’s dealing with truth or tall tales, Quinion aims to provide the whole ball of wax, and as an etymologizer he more than cuts the mustard.” (Jan Freeman, Boston Globe, 10 Oct. 2004)
“I recommend this book: I don't see how it can fail to draw you in. It's the kind of work that you have a hard time disentangling yourself from. ... Half an hour later I was still there, darting about the book, one entry leading to another.” (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, 10 Sep. 2005)
Port Out Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths is published outside the USA by Penguin Books. Hardcover: ISBN 0140515348, pp304; UK price £12.99. Paperback: ISBN 0141012234, pp282; UK price £7.99. In the USA it is published by the Smithsonian Institution Press under the title Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds. Hardcover: ISBN 1588342190; pp280, US$19.95. The US paperback is published by HarperCollins; ISBN 0060851538, publisher’s list price $12.95.