10 Oct 2008

Hot for Chronological Accuracy

Submitted by Karl Hagen
I have mixed feelings about Hotforwords. On the plus side, she's talking about language, she generally does some research, and she seems to have a clue about linguistic matters. (Oh, yeah, and she really is hot.) On the other hand, she confines herself to a fairly trivial form of etymology: stories about word origins shorn of historical linguistics. It also appears that her research is confined to looking things up in a few of the standard references (like the OED), and, more questionably, Wikipedia.

As a case in point, witness this video, in which she dismisses Coleridge as a source for the expression "the birds and the bees" by virtue of being written in 1939, whereas the Cole Porter song, "Let's Do It," which has the line "Birds do it, bees do it," was written in 1928.

I have no idea where she got the 1939 date for Coleridge (some edition that she found?), but anyone with even the most cursory acquaintance with English literary history ought to know that Coleridge is early 19th century. The poem she references antedates the Porter song by over 100 years.

As far as I can tell, Marina is just presenting the Wikipedia page on this expression. These are the only two theories mentioned, and tellingly, if you check the page's history, the [correct] date of the Coleridge poem was only added after her video appeared on YouTube. [Before that, there was no date at all.]

[Update: the material in brackets was added to clarify my original intention. See also the comment from Marina herself below.]

This may seem like a minor point, but the whole focus of her presentation is on word history, so it's essential that she get her chronology right. More importantly, it would be nice if she did a little digging in some original sources instead of relying on others to do the heavy lifting. A quick search of Google Books turns up some interesting early uses of the phrase, which perhaps I'll write about a little later.

In any event, Marina is clearly aware of the Wikipedia criticism. See this video where she pokes fun at herself:

BTW, she hasn't made a dating error in this [second] video. Although her accent makes it unclear, she really does mean Gullible's Travels by Ring Lartner and not Gulliver's Travels.


Karl, Thanks for pointing out my incorrect date... I noticed that after I had made the video that I had gotten the dates wrong. I memorize my research before recording my videos and completely missed that point until after I had already posted my video. I posted a correction on my website which you can see here.. http://www.hotforwords.com/2008/07/20/birds-and-the-bees/ but I guess that I need to put the correction on YouTube as well. The problem with YouTube is that you cannot edit videos after uploading them. Now, I don't use Wikipedia for research.. and you seem to clarify that in what you wrote. You say that the incorrect date that I stated ended up on Wikipedia AFTER my video was posted... so that would indicate that the writer took MY incorrect information and posted it to Wikipedia.. not the other way around. Thanks for the writeup anyway. Even though it is critical of what I am doing, that is fine, as it will just make me work harder. I'm a one woman show and trying my best to interest people in etymology.. and at 120 million views, I am at least reaching a few people who seem to enjoy what I am doing. Marina

I'm glad to know that the Wikipedia thing was just a coincidence. I'll be sure to check your website next time.

Hello Karl, Given your background, I can understand your mixed feelings about HFW and I appreciate your article. Keep in mind that HFW has over 125,625 word enthusiast subscribers, where most of us do not work in academia or related liberal arts field. Many of us are scientific, math and technology types, and we relish learning about words in general and word origins, specifically. Also, for many of us, English is also our second language as it is for Marina and the study of words is especially fascinating. I can sense that you might be a perfectionist like me, which has its merits, but we live in an imperfect world striving to do better. Marina demonstrates a sense of this higher ideal with her lessons. I have followed Marina for over a year and a half and have watched every lesson, and I have learned something valuable from each lesson. I think the YT lessons can stand on their own, but the real genius is the HotForWords.com web site where word enthusiasts interchange ideas freely and where the learning process is enhanced. By the way, the word "Hot" in HotForWords does not refer to the very attractive Marina, except coincidentally as a play on words, but refers to Marina having a passion for words. I bet you knew that. :-) The key to Marina's following is her passion and caring for the study of words. A trusty and loyal HFW student.