Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

An Urban Legend Blasted to Smithereens

I received the following e-mail recently:

“Your origin of the word smithereens I believe is in error as is also the different one shown at Wickipedia. When I was taking physics at school in the 1930’s, I was taught that early in the nineteenth century a physicist by the name of Smith thought he had discovered the smallest possible particle, which he called the ‘smithereen’, which I think proved to be the molecule.”

Forgive the delay in responding; we have been unusually busy since the first of the year and just completed a difficult job that took us from the first of the year until last week to complete.

The first problem your theory faces is that for it to work, the physicist would have had to have been named “Smithers”. That would require but a minor change in your theory. However, the history of your explanation presents a greater problem.

In point of fact, molecules were being discussed by Descartes already in the seventeenth century, so the report that someone named Smith (or Smithers) discovered the smallest particle in the nineteenth century does not fit the historical facts. The word molecule was available in French since at least the early seventeenth century. The first published instance of the word in English traces back to 1674, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

I’m afraid the story you picked up in your physics class is just another urban legend introduced by a dilettante etymologist in the past. The general rule to follow is this: if the etymology is obvious, it is probably an urban legend. Words change very rapidly over time and are seldom subject to simple analysis.

5 Responses to “An Urban Legend Blasted to Smithereens”

  1. Robert Mather Says:

    Your ill-chosen headline smacks of arrogance and does not address the subject accurately. Firstly, Smith/Smithers? It could be my memories is at fault but it does not HAVE to be Smithers. ‘Smither-een’ could be derived from either.

    Secondly, of course the word molecule was known in France at the dates you say but they were mere concepts, Descartes’ a philosophical one like the Greek ‘Atom’ where philosophers conjectured that all things were made up of some small entity. They had no idea what, never proven or discovered. Even after the laws of Dalton and Avagadro in the early nineteenth century, great Physcists like Maxwell and Boltzmann still regarded the concept of the molecule as ‘mere mathematical constructions. It was not until Perrin’s work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the molecule was proven. Remeber the achievement under discussion was the discovery, not the concept.

  2. Robert Beard Says:

    I hope I haven’t offended you; I wasn’t offended by your criticism of my etymology. The title was simply a play on words. The discovery that your version was an urban legend is something I get all the time. I hadn’t heard this one, however; it was a new one to me.

    My favorite is the explanation of the origin of ‘posh’ as the initials on a first-class steamer ticket, which stood for “Port Out Starboard Home”. Again, not a single ticket showing these initials nor any reason for them appearing on a ticket, since absolute cabin assignments are always made before a ship leaves harbor.

    My second favorite is that ‘bug’ in the sense of “glitch” was due some professor at MIT (whose first name is known) who discovered an actual moth in the inner workings of a computer at the time computers ran on vacuum tubes. The problem with this one? ‘Bug’ was used in this sense 100 years before the reported incident.

    I could have added to my arguments the facts that we have no written record of Smith’s discovery; we don’t even know his first name. There is no way we can prove this story and all the evidence points in another direction.

    So, again, no offense was intended. If you wish, I will remove your name from this blog entry.

  3. maidhc Says:

    “Smithereen” comes from Irish Gaelic. Its etymology is well-known.

    The story about the moth in the computer was a joke made by Grace Hopper (a very well-known computer pioneer) about it being the first time a bug was actually found. It wouldn’t have been a joke unless people were already using the word. And it was relays, not vacuum tubes. How could a moth get stuck in a vacuum tube?

    “Bug” and “glitch” do not mean the same thing at all. A bug is a generic term for any kind of unwanted behavior. A glitch has a very specific meaning — a very short voltage spike that can cause a fault in a logic circuit. For some reason “glitch” has become fashionable among non-technical people, presumably because it makes them sound more technical. But it really has the opposite effect when the word is used inappropriately.

  4. Robert Beard Says:

    The definition of “bug” as reported in my blog entry was treated seriously in FOLDOC for years, long enough for it to pass into the realm of urban legend as I said in my blog entry. I should know: I’ve been entertaining it here at alphaDictionary and yourDictionary for the past 12 years. Believe me, it is still out there.

    I don’t get the difference between the “real” meaning of “glitch” the one people use.

  5. Robert Mather Says:

    Hello Robert. I was not offended and I hope I did not upset you too much with my reply. I just felt that you dismissed to flippantly but your blog is quite interesting. Good luck.

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