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Linguistic Fact Checking

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I suppose it happens in any field, but when it comes to language, people seem happy to repeat the nuttiest myths as fact. This behavior is a recurring theme over at Language Log, where just yesterday Benjamin Zimmer posted a note on the reporting in some of “Walter Cronkite’s obituaries that ‘Swedish anchors are known as Kronkiters; In Holland, they are Cronkiters.’ Or by some accounts it’s the Swedes who use ‘Cronkiters.'”

As Zimmer explains — briefly at Language Log and in more detail at Word Routes — the claims about Kronkiters and Cronkiters are simply false. Zimmer does some research on the early appearances of this myth, and finds that Cronkite himself deserves some of the blame. Zimmer’s conclusion:

So how did all these smart people — journalists, academics, and Cronkite himself — get caught up in a language legend that has no clear basis in reality? Well, it’s possible that Cronkiter/Kronkiter was used by someone in Sweden or elsewhere, perhaps as a playful ad-hoc neologism, and that mistakenly got picked up by a CBS News correspondent (and then by Gary Paul Gates et al.) as if it were a universal, generic term for “anchorman.” If it really did enter circulation, the life of Cronkiter/Kronkiter must have been quite brief, since it gets nary a mention in current and historical sources from Sweden, the Netherlands, or any other nearby country.

None of this should undercut the significance of Cronkite’s career and his place in journalistic history. But shouldn’t we honor his great legacy of accurate and trustworthy reporting by checking this stuff out?

By the way, if you are under the mis-apprehension that Eskimos have twenty-three words for snow (or fifty, or a hundred), see Geoffrey Pullum’s 1991 essay on the matter, or the wikipedia entry. (Pullum’s article is based on the 1986 report of Laura Martin, to which I don’t have a direct link.) Pullum is a co-founder of Language Log. He concludes his article with a warning that applies as well to the Cronkiter myth:

For my part, I want to make one last effort to clarify that the chapter above isn’t about Eskimo lexicography at all, though I’m sure it will be taken to be. What it’s actually about is intellectual sloth. Among all the hundreds of people making published contributions to the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax, no one had acquired any evidence about how long the purported list of snow terms really was, or what words were on it, or what criteria were used in deciding what to put on the list. The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are.

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