Piltdown Man

Piltdown Man - Wikipedia
A group of Victorian Silverbacks gather to examine the remains of a relative. Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio.

SB Bill (Hinesburg SBs) is always trying to expand our vocabularies by introducing us to new words. This day he sent us Piltdown.

A.Word.A.Day with Anu Garg

It takes a village to raise a child, they say. The same can be said for a language. In the case of the English language, it took many countries.

England is considered its home, but to nurture it and to help it thrive, the language had generous assistance* from assorted Germanic tribes, the Vikings, and the French. Also, from people who spoke many other languages around the world. A global village raised it and made it what a good little language it is. Empires come and go, but languages last longer.

Many of the words in English are named after places in England. The cheddar cheese is named after Cheddar (a village in Somerset, England), worsted cloth is after Worstead (a village in Norfolk, England), and the Oxford comma is named after Oxford University Press (in Oxford, England).

This week we’ll look at five other toponyms coined after places in England. These are unusual words, and chances are even people in the UK may not be familiar with most of them. If you live in the UK, drop us a line (words@wordsmith.org) and tell us about your experience with these words or places.

*”Generous assistance” in this context should be interpreted by taking ample liberties with the words “generous” and “assistance”. England was conquered and/or populated in many different forms (see a very brief history of the English language). They, in turn, went around and conquered and colonized other countries. Whenever two languages come into contact, they borrow words from each other.

A toponym is a word derived from the name of a place, from Greek topos (place) + -onym (name, word).


MEANING: noun: Crude, uncouth, unintelligent.

After Piltdown, a village in Sussex, England, where a fossil skull, called the Piltdown Man, supposedly from an early human, was found. Earliest documented use: 1941. Also see neanderthal.
NOTES: In 1912, the lawyer and amateur archeologist Charles Dawson claimed to have found a fossil skull, supposedly belonging to an early human, in Piltdown, England. It was later proven to be fraud. Dawson made a career out of forgeries. Before the Piltdown Man he had presented a toad entombed in flint, a Chinese vase, a horseshoe, among dozens of other archeological finds, all fraudulent. The word skulduggery, also spelled as skullduggery, has nothing to do with the Piltdown saga.
USAGE: “He really talks like this, the Piltdowner. No wonder he’s thick.”
Jonathan Gash; Gold from Gemini; Harper & Row; 1978.

Yes, Piltdown man was a fraud, but a very successful one. It took the scientific community 41 years to disprove it, and it wasn’t until 1963 that its perpetrator was identified, although not conclusively as Charles Dawson who was an acquaintance of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, prompting speculation that Doyle might have been a co-conspirator in the hoax. Clarence Darrow cited Piltdown Man in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, as did L. Ron Hubbard in his 1952 book Scientology: A History of Man.

You might want to think twice before calling someone else a Piltdowner.

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