piggy bank

If you search the web to determine the etymology of the phrase piggy bank, you'll quickly conclude that there is little disagreement over its origin.

Many web pages give the following story: There was once a kind of clay called pygg. People made containers out of it, and they put money in some of those containers, which became known as pygg jars or pygg banks. Because pygg began to sound like pig, people started making those banks in the shape of pigs, so by the 18th century the term had become pig bank, which later turned into piggy bank.

That's a nicely satisfying story. Only trouble is, I don't believe it.

It sounded too pat to me; it has the feel of folkloric etymology. And as linguists like to say, etymology by sound is not sound etymology. It didn't sound impossible to me, just implausible.

So I did some research. In particular, I checked two dictionaries that I find generally reliable for etymology: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (MW3) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Both implied that piggy bank derived straightforwardly from pig.

So I poked around online some more, and I gradually concluded that most of the web pages that provide the pygg story got their info from a Straight Dope column titled What's the origin of the piggy bank? Usually I find Straight Dope pretty reliable, but in this case I think Science Advisory Board member Mac may've been too trusting of the single source that they seem to have consulted, a 1989 book called Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati.

I used online resources to look at the Panati book. Sure enough, in the chapter titled “At Play,” it gives the pygg story. So I checked Panati's references section for that chapter to see where he got the info. Unfortunately, none of the listed references seems relevant to piggy banks, and the ones that are searchable through Google Books don't seem to mention piggy banks or pygg.

I also looked at a different research path: Panati says pygg was called that during “the Middle Ages,” and Straight Dope talks about the Great Vowel Shift, and various other sources claim that pygg was a Middle English word. (People who pick up this story do seem to like to elaborate on it.) So I checked the online Middle English Dictionary. I can't find any evidence there that pygg was a type of clay; all the cites of pygg in quotations are variant spellings of pig and clearly refer to the animal. Could Panati have meant it was an Old English word or an early Modern English word instead of Middle English? I suppose, but there's no listing for pygg in the online Old English dictionaries I checked, nor in MW3. The OED lists pygg(e) as an obsolete spelling of pig; it doesn't say anything about clay.

Meanwhile, I dropped a note to the Merriam-Webster etymology people asking about this. (I think it's totally awesome that you can ask them etymology questions.) I soon got back a response from Etymology Editor Jim Rader, who wrote, in part:

[...] the story about 18th-century "pygg banks" looks entirely fictional to me. [...] piggy banks [...] appear to have originated in the U.S. not much earlier than the 1890's. Google Books does not turn up any cites of pig bank in the relevant sense before 1902, or of piggy bank before 1909. A search of other data bases might produce something earlier, but these dates seem indicative enough.

(Quoted here with his permission.) I kicked myself for not having thought to check Google Books myself.

So although the pygg story is extremely widespread, I can't find any evidence for it from a reliable source. To recap:

  • I can't find evidence that there was ever a kind of clay called pygg.
  • I can't find evidence that there were things called pig banks before the late 19th century.
  • I can't find evidence that pig banks were named after anything other than their resemblance to pigs.

I'll try and find out more about Panati's source for the story, but at this point I'm inclined to chalk it up to folklore.

If any of you have any further insights or references, let me know.

Semi-finished casting products

In addition to being amused by the phrase “semi-finished casting products,“ I like (and hadn't encountered before) a couple of the specific names of such products:

billet
“a length of metal [like a filled-in tube] that has a round or square cross-section” that's less than 36 square inches in area.
bloom
A billet with a cross-section bigger than 36 square inches.

Typo generator

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Researchers at U. Penn have created software that generates typos. Give it a phrase, and it will generate a list of variants on that phrase, featuring things like missing letters, doubled letters, and so on. I'm not sure whether they specifically focus on typos that real people would make while typing (for example, substituting letters that are adjacent on a keyboard in a given language), but either way, I'm amused by the idea.

In addition to being cute, the code has search-relevant implications; website owners can use it to generate likely misspellings of search queries, in order to catch traffic from people who misspell their queries. I obviously don't advocate using this for black-hat SEO, but it seems to me that it has legitimate uses for white-hat SEO.

Modes of persuasion

I have no training and but little skill in rhetoric, but I find the bits of it that I've seen fascinating, especially the names for things.

I recently learned that there are traditionally three modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Every time I see that list, I can't help thinking “And d'Artagnan!”

(I now see that Vardibidian made the same joke in a blog-entry title a year ago, but subtly enough that I didn't get it at the time. I imagine there've been many other renditions of this joke over the years, but this one is mine.)

On a side note, this entry is an example of the Indexing Problem, in that if you were to do a search for [musketeers] on my site, this entry wouldn't come up. Well, now it will, 'cause I just mentioned it. Is there a name for the rhetorical device of using metacommentary about search issues to add a keyword to a page? Maybe we need a new glossary of computational rhetoric.

(“Online rhetoric” would probably be a more accurate term for what I'm talking about, but the phrase “computational rhetoric” is too appealing to pass up.)

Daisy: 50 years of song synthesis

I got curious about why HAL 9000 sings “Daisy” (actual song title: “Daisy Bell) in 2001.

It turns out that it's because Arthur C. Clarke saw a 1962 Bell Labs demo of an IBM 704 singing “Daisy”.

That wasn't the first electronic speech synthesis; the Voder was invented in the 1930s. But the Bell Labs demo may've been the first electronically generated singing.

I wonder what led the Bell people to pick that particular song. I especially wonder whether it's because Daisy's last name in the song is Bell.

YouTube has an audio recording of the demo, accompanied for some reason by a still image made to look like an old movie. The voice doesn't start until a minute in. It's pretty good speech synthesis; not as good as, say, Siri, or Google's synthesized voices, but not as much worse as I would've expected, given that it was fifty years ago.

Speaking of which: in response to the query “sing me a song,” Siri will recite the beginning of the chorus of “Daisy”—but won't actually sing it. So fifty years on, we still don't have singing computers in daily life. Another failure of living in the future, like jetpacks and aircars. I'll have to console myself by listening to the Dictionaraoke version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” again.

(Nitpicky number details: The YouTube video says the demo took place in 1961 (rather than 1962) and was on an IBM 7094 (rather than 704). I tend to believe the Bell Labs official website over a random YouTube video, but I don't know for sure. Also, Wikipedia says that the 7094 wasn't introduced until 1962; if that's true, then the video can't be right about both the year and the model number. But I haven't actually researched any of these numbers.)

There's been some interesting work lately in analyzing documents and speeches in terms of statistics and word clouds and such. The most recent piece I've come across in this area is Janet Harris's Huffington Post article “From Reagan to Romney: How Last Night's Speech Measured Up,” written shortly after Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. It examines Republican nomination acceptance speeches over the past 32 years, looking at things like wordcounts and word clouds for each speech.