I couldn’t help but smile the other day when I spotted a column-filler article in the Walsall Express and Star of Wednesday, 24th August 2011. On the editorial page, under an tawdry why-oh-why whine about Sally Bercow and Big Brother dribbled out by ‘Gun Law’ specialist Elizabeth Joyce, there was an odd article under the name Mark Andrews, purporting to be an interview with etymologist Barbara Mikkelson about a long-time circulating bit of viral mythology.
People who know this blog know I’ve a voracious interest in urban myths, and have picked up Peter Rhodes, the paper’s very own tame Richard Littlecock, before now over the recycling of urban myths as anecdote. Since I pointed out his error, Peter has mentioned Snopes.com – the website for all urban myth and modern folklore reference – a couple of times, so my effort in pointing it out to him and the paper clearly wasn’t lost.
Snopes is an internet institution, and the site’s curators – Americans Barbara Mikkelson and her husband David – run it full time, this indispensable resource having sprung out of the Usenet group alt.urban.folklore way back at the dawn of the internet. Indeed, the couple actually met on that very newsgroup. I’m sure Barbara would class herself as far more than an etymologist.
Snopes has debunked circulating email lore for years, and contains discussions of most such samizdat, including an very thorough dismantling of a piece of tripe about the expressions ‘one for the road’ and ‘on the wagon’, which if thought about for more than a few seconds, don’t stand analysis. Barbara goes through the bogus definition, step by step, and factually asserts the truth. A great piece of educated, thorough research, which I’d tenure, is what the internet exists to do.
It seems that journo Mark Andrews also found Snopes, and clearly having been tasked to generate some wordy filler content had a brainwave. His piece is styled as an interview with Barbara Mikkelson, but wisely, never states as much. Whole sections of the article are just lifted as quotes from the Snopes webpage. Take a look. I’m sure the paper asked Barbara’s permission, as they’d never just lift things wholesale and claim them as original works. I’ve highlighted the lifted bits in yellow:
Of course, there Express and Star is no stranger to this kind of thing, and tends to see the internet variously as the Great Evil, a huge waste of time and a valuable source of free liftable content. The least they could do is credit Barbara for what she actually does and the site she runs. I can’t see that happening, however, as that would let the light in upon the journalism magic and might send readers scurrying off to the source of the original, uncorrupted content, and that would never do.