So how do these “etymythologies” get started, anyway? Scholars of urban legends who take an epidemiological approach to such social phenomena know that it’s rare to find a single origin, though it’s always possible to trace the vectors of transmission. In the case of tag standing for “touch and go,” the idea had been shared on Twitter as early as April 2013, when the user @tvsmithmy wrote, “That awesome and stupid eureka moment when you realise the tag in Smart Tag stands for Touch and Go.” He was talking about an electronic toll-collection system in Malaysia called SmartTAG, an extension of the Touch ’n Go card-based system. In that context, TAG may actually be an acronym—or, more precisely, a backronym invented to fit a preexisting word.
The latest flurry of tag etymologizing didn’t have anything to do with Malaysian toll payments, however, but instead appeared to originate on Reddit (as so many things do these days). On the subreddit /r/Showerthoughts, a user posted on July 7, “The game Tag stands for Touch and Go.” That musing was met immediately with the response, “Rule of thumb: Acronyms are frequently incorrect folk etymologies,” but such warnings did little to counter the meme’s rapid circulation.
In the case of the term wifebeater, the slang word for a sleeveless white T-shirt mostly worn by men, high in the search results for its origin is a 2005 blog post by the filmmaker Paul Davidson. In it, Davidson explains that in medieval times, a chain-mail undergarment was known as a “waif beater,” and this morphed into our modern-day wifebeater. This fanciful story got picked up as a serious etymology elsewhere, including on the website Apparel Search and in a 2016 Mic article (republished by Yahoo News). The Mic article is currently the second search result for wifebeater returned by Google, right after Urban Dictionary.
Needless to say, the waif-beater story was made up out of whole cloth. When I was asked about the origins of wifebeater by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, who wrote a New York Times op-ed in May about the need to retire the term, I warned him to pay no attention to the waif-beater derivation. Curious, I got in touch with Davidson, who quickly confessed that his post “was written as a satire of people who obsessed over digging into origins of common phrases and who believe anything they read via a Google search.”
“For most of the general public,” Davidson further elaborated, “the Internet and the words written on the Internet wrongly lend a perception of validity and legitimacy to a majority of what is found/created and/or written on it.” His waif-beater post was intended to show “how dangerous taking something at face value on the Internet can be.”
Davidson is not alone in his trolling approach to online gullibility. Even an outlet as seemingly trustworthy as Snopes has some mischievous fun along these lines in a section of the site titled “The Repository of Lost Legends”—you can figure out the backronym yourself. There you might learn, say, that mobile homes are so named because they were originally manufactured outside of Mobile, Alabama. Clicking on a “more information” link at the bottom of the page will take you to an explainer that gives the game away: “This section graphically demonstrates the pitfalls of falling into the lazy habit of taking as gospel any one information outlet’s unsupported word.” Caveat lector. Finding accurate information on the internet is, as always, a touch-and-go affair.