Chances are that meme doesn't mean what you think it means.Justin Lambert / Getty

Perhaps you’ve seen a meme floating around social media recently, purporting to reveal the etymology of the word tag.

“How old were you when you learned the game TAG stands for ‘Touch and Go’?” asks the most popular version of the meme. “I was today years old.”

This nugget of would-be wisdom spread like wildfire—one early iteration on Facebook has been shared more than 312,000 times. Fortunately, some had second thoughts about the “touch and go” derivation and checked reputable online sources.

On July 16, one day after the meme first took off on Facebook, Merriam-Webster noted a 25,300-percent uptick in searches for tag in their online dictionary, according to the company’s editor at large, Peter Sokolowski. Merriam-Webster tersely responded on Twitter, “We’re 190 years old and ‘tag’ doesn’t mean ‘touch and go.’” The tweet linked to the dictionary entry, though for the game of tag meaning, the etymology was unsatisfyingly given as “origin unknown.” Other dictionaries, such as The American Heritage, shed a bit more light: “Perhaps variant of Scots tig, touch, tap, probably alteration of Middle English tek.”

The researchers at Snopes.com, a fact-checking website, also sprang into action, creating a page that fleshes out the accepted etymology found in The Oxford English Dictionary and elsewhere. It relates tag to the variant tig, both used for children’s chasing games in the 19th century. Tag and tig are in turn related to tik, meaning “pat, touch.” No major English dictionary says anything about touch and go, even though, as Snopes notes, the tag meme is presented “as a tidbit of knowledge so intuitively obvious that one ought to be embarrassed not to have been aware of it.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary, a resource maintained by Douglas Harper, a copy editor, also saw a spike in searches for tag—the word’s entry drew a mere 24 hits on July 11, but got nearly 9,000 hits on July 17. He excoriated the meme in a blog post on his site, calling it “the latest appalling idiocy of the internet” and “Twitter bilge.” Those who visit the tag entry will now see a bold-faced warning: “It’s not an acronym and doesn’t stand for anything.” But Harper did appreciate the “intellectual honesty” of those who bothered to look up the word’s actual etymology.

Back in April I investigated a similar case in which wop, an epithet used to refer to an Italian person, is popularly explained as standing for “without papers” or “without passport” (rather than the likeliest definition, sourced from the southern-Italian word guappo, meaning “dandy” or “swaggerer”). As I explained there, such acronymic explanations, while alluring, are almost always spurious rationales cooked up well after a word’s actual origination. Harper, in his post for the Online Etymology Dictionary, provides a sardonic diagnosis for people who get easily suckered by a pleasing acronym: “acronymphomania.”

Add acronymphomania to the same box as another clever portmanteau: etymythology, coined by the Yale linguist Laurence Horn for the general phenomenon of using fabricated etymologies (acronymic or otherwise) in the service of telling attractive origin stories, doing for words what Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories did for animals. It’s a kind of urban folklore that has always been appealing, but now etymythologies spread lightning fast online in meme form.

What can explain the propensity to believe—or to want to believe—an etymological myth like this one, with no further investigation? In his 2004 book, Word Myths, David Wilton notes some common threads among the most popular linguistic urban legends. For instance, they might validate group identity or serve sociopolitical purposes. The tag meme and its acronymic brethren fall into another category: myths that are told as “examples of word play and humor.” Some acronym myths, Wilton writes, start off as jokes but then get taken seriously, such as the elaborate notion that shit originated as a nautical warning about transporting manure: “ship high in transit.”

Wilton further observes that “one of the most compelling reasons for telling these tales is that they explain mysteries.” Saying that the origin of tag is unknown is far less satisfying than coming up with a tidy explanation, especially one that seems to be hiding in plain sight. When that sense of discovery is distilled in meme form (with the “how old were you/ today years old” frame adding an extra dose of playful shareability), the appeal becomes irresistible to many. And seeing the meme repeated again and again online, regardless of the trustworthiness of the source, may reinforce the sense that it must be true—as psychologists studying the power of “fake news” have recently argued.

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.

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