Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 5 February 2005

A Lexicographer writes

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Radio Four had a trailer programme for a series it will run in August called Word 4 Word. (Yes, it is a bit silly to have a visual pun on the wireless.) It is intended to contribute to Leeds University’s new dialect map of the United Kingdom, a splendid project.

I am not sure how much Radio Four’s findings are contributing so far to the Leeds survey, since the programme encouraged interviewees to come up with what were in effect nonce-terms and jocular slang coinages. An example was five-finger disco for shoplifting — not a lexical item that is likely to find a long-lived place on the nation’s verbal atlas.

What I found more than annoying, though, was the declaration by one of the programme’s panel, Craig Charles, that he had only recently discovered that the verb to crap came from the sanitary engineer Thomas Crapper (1837–1910). This is a commonly held view and it is plain wrong.

Popular etymology of this sort — memorable and plausible and wrong — has a tenacious hold. The Thomas Crapper error was neatly disposed of by Michael Quinion in his admirable book Port Out, Starboard Home. He didn’t say much more than is found in the OED, but that is quite enough to prove that crap does not come from Thomas Crapper.

Since his book was published, though, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has been published, and this fine monument of learning gives comfort to those in error about crap. While it admits that crap ‘was in former times applied to various sorts of rubbish’, it suggests that because ‘Crapper’s name and trade were blazoned across the fa