Alex Steer

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Just because you read it on a blog doesn't mean it's not rubbish

876 words

Dave Trott at CST Advertising thinks he knows about the origins of on one's tod, meaning on one's own. What he shows with his post is that a) he doesn't, and b) he cares more about winning arguments than being right.

In fairness, that's his point. The blog's argument, which is ultimately about advertising, is that in an ad pitch 'whoever wins makes the best argument', and that 'all that wins is the best argument, not necessarily the best ad'. This is probably true, and he concludes quite neatly:

Think of that next time you’re on an awards jury, or with a client, or an account man or planner, or even your creative partner. Someone might be better at arguing. They might win the argument. But they might still come up with the wrong answer.

Which is fine. But the example he uses to get to the end of this lesson is extraordinary.

Now, everyone's allowed a crazy theory or two about the origins of words. Many of us do it, and we may not be that interested to know whether or not the word 'posh' really comes from 'port out, starboard home' (it doesn't). But hopefully most of us, when confronted with the facts, actually do the decent thing and say, 'Okay. It was a fun theory, but it was wrong. Game over.'

This is where Dave Trott falls down. His pet theory is that on one's tod comes from the name of Mike Todd, the Hollywood producer whom Elizabeth Taylor married in 1957. In fairness, he thinks he has evidence. Here it is:

[Todd] wanted to make the film “Around The World In Eighty Days” starring David Niven. It cost an absolute fortune and he couldn’t get any backing. At the time it was a famous story, how he scraped, and did whatever it took, to finance the film. Against the odds he got it made, and it was a huge success. In those days the biggest TV programme was “Sunday Night At The London Palladium”. The host at this particular time was Norman Vaughan. He used to do a brief monologue at the beginning of the show. One Sunday night he was grumbling that he’d had no help that evening. “I’ve had to do everything on my Mike Todd” he said. It got a huge laugh. Because everyone knew what he meant without saying it. The phrase “on your Mike Todd” caught on. Soon it got shortened to “on your Todd” and eventually “on your tod”. And it passed into the language.

Which is not a bad theory. So far, so good.

Except that the OED cites examples of on one's tod back as far as 1934. 22 years before the film was made. When Elizabeth Taylor was 2.

The OED also gives some of the evidence for the apparent origin of the term. It's rhyming slang for 'Tod Sloan', a once famous but now forgotten early 20th century American jockey who died in 1933 (at around the time the slang term seems to have been coined). A good account is given by the lexicographer Michael Quinion here.

This should really be the point at which you roll over and accept the evidence. However, Dave Trott has decided that, since it doesn't fit his theory, the evidence is wrong, and so are the people who have found it.

All you have to do is look it up in any of the various books on cockney rhyming slang. There are several in Foyles. All written by 30-ish middle class university graduates. All of whom are experts in the derivation of cockney rhyming slang. So to them, all slang must be rhyming slang. [...] So they’ll tell you that ‘on your tod’ is believed to refer to a certain Todd Sloan, a man famous in the east end of London for riding around everyday, alone on his horse. He liked to be alone. Hence ‘todd sloan’ = alone. Except that’s bollocks. These people assume that all slang is derived from rhyming slang because that’s their preconception. So they make the evidence fit their preconception.

No, Dave. First off, your description of Tod Sloan is wrong. See the link above. Second, the people who write dictionaries, middle-class though they might be, are people who earn their livings and spend their lives sifting through the evidence for where words come from and trying to get it right. Some dictionaries are more rigorous than others, but that's the general principle. What they don't do is make up any old nonsense, then go on the offensive when it turns out they're wrong.

So maybe in advertising 'all that wins is the best argument'. But not in lexicography. In lexicography, you actually have to be right.

Game over.

# Alex Steer (25/06/2009)