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July 27th, 2005

The origins of urban myth / went missing

by Barbara Wallraff

Joe Michaels, of Plymouth, Mich., writes: “In 1989, as my recently re-formed rock group was driving to its first public performance, we discussed our heretofore unresolved name. We agreed on the nonsense phrase ‘Urban Myth.’ It meant nothing to us. In fact, the bar owner introduced us as ‘Urban Math.’ Later he called us ‘Urban Myst.’

“When, some time later, I heard a local anchorman use the phrase ‘urban myth,’ I thought I was hallucinating (as, upon recounting it, did my fellow musicians). Then I read it in our local paper. Sixteen years later, the expression -- synonymous with ‘urban legend’ -- is ubiquitous. What are the chances that we truly invented the phrase?”

Dear Joe: Sorry, but they’re zilch. Using one of my special professional tools (the Nexis database), I was able to call up 55 newspaper and newsmagazine citations dating from 1982 to 1988 that use “urban myth” in the sense of “urban legend.”

The earliest of them comes from the May 19, 1982, issue of The New York Times: “Like Captain Hook, John T. Flaherty is dogged by crocodiles, and, in addition, alligators. Mr. Flaherty is chief of design in the New York City Bureau of Sewers, but he is also the resident expert on the most durable urban myth in the history of cities, reptiles or waste disposal.”

All around the margins of English, in fact, there can be found words and phrases that people believe they invented. And no doubt they did invent them. The only thing is, so did other people. According to the book “Predicting New Words,” by Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, in the past few years the word “scrutined,” instead of “scrutinized,” has turned up on the Web site of the World Seed Fund, on a message board for the Fabulous Williams Sisters and in a quotation from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. These are probably not sources that have borrowed the word from one another. A couple of other examples of words that keep being invented and reinvented are “linner,” meaning a meal between lunchtime and dinnertime, and “plerk,” a combination of “play” and “work.” Even “software,” meaning “computer programs,” has more than one inventor: At least two computer specialists lay claim to it.

Sylvia Smith, of Seal Harbor, Maine, writes: “What do you think of the current phrase ‘went missing’? Whatever happened to ‘is missing’?”

Dear Sylvia: I don’t know what it is about this phrase, but readers keep asking and asking about it. I wrote about it once before, but maybe the paper containing that earlier column, um, went missing. “Went missing” or “go missing” is a British import, and obviously it grates on a lot of people on our side of the Atlantic. But I find it a useful addition to our language. It means something more active than “is missing” -- something more like “vanished.” The idea of going missing is less dramatic than that, though, and generally leaves open the possibility that what’s missing will be found. “Went missing” has been appearing in respectable U.S. sources since about 1980. It seems to be here to stay.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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