Lessons in Etymology

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

Before I began reading my next book group book, a novel called Lessons in Chemistry, I glanced at author Bonnie Garmus’s bio inside the back cover, where I saw that her dog’s name is 99. I wondered if Garmus had watched the sitcom Get Smart as a kid. Garmus is 66, so it’s just possible.

My dad and I occasionally watched Get Smart, a clever send-up of James Bond created by Mel Brooks. Maxwell Smart, played by Don Adams, was a clueless spy, prone to drawing precisely the wrong conclusions. His partner agent’s code name was 99. The lovely Barbara Feldon, who played 99, caused many viewers’ hearts to flutter. It occurs to me now that she was the sitcom counterpart to the svelte Emma Peal (Diana Rigg) from The Avengers.

Several taglines survive from Get Smart, including “Sorry about that, Chief” and “Would you believe . . . ?” One that took hold in my family was “Good thinking, 99,” a compliment Smart would bestow upon his smarter partner. At our house, whenever someone figured something out, such as deciphering a hard clue on Saturday Review’s Double-Crostic, the response would be, “Good thinking, 99.” My husband and I still say this sometimes.

When I read Garmus’s dog’s name, I googled the phrase and found this explanation of its origins:

Maxwell Smart would always be quoted saying, “Good thinking, 99.” 99 is used because it is very close to 100 and is an indication of intelligence, because scoring 99 on any difficult test or project requires intelligence. It is a pop culture reference to an old television show that your parents probably remember.

Whoever wrote that should have asked his or her parents to explain the reference. How dare they overlook the significance of Agent 99?

This is an example of false etymology. Sometimes a similarity between words seems to imply a connection that isn’t there. History, for example, does not derive from his + story (i.e. narrative that leaves out women); rather, it’s from an ancient Greek word meaning “knowledge acquired through research.” Acronyms that sound too good to be true usually are, such as “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” to explain golf, which actually derives from some old Scottish word.

The online 99 explanation seems like something somebody just made up. The writer seems to be thinking, “99% is a pretty good grade, right?” Either way, I have to assume Bonnie Garmus’s dog is smart, because she’s either named after Agent 99 or scores almost 100% on every test.

Does your family use catchphrases from TV or movies? It will be interesting to see our generational (and other) differences.

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4 Responses to Lessons in Etymology

  1. Dave Ewing says:

    That’s a DAP! When discussing, who should do a specific chore for a family member?me? my wife? or daughter? i.e. This is broken and needs to be fixed. Of course, the girls would chime in with, “That’s a DAP!” Dad’s Appointed Position. The car is low on fuel. That’s a DAP, etc.

  2. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    Blame it on spell-check.
    Garmus’s dog may be 99, but I’ll be he doesn’t know as many words as Six-thirty.
    As for movie quotes often used, I’ll think about it tomorrow at Tara.

  3. Sarah Becker says:

    My husband Sidney and I communicate almost entirely through quotations from our favorite movies. Almost the whole script of Local Hero is memorable: to describe a pet rabbit, a character says, in his inimitable Scottish accent, “It had a name. Two names!” A comment on the love of the Scottish countryside: “You can’t eat scenery!”
    Heat (the Michael Mann movie, that is) has great lines, but you have to say them just like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro.
    Any dialogue from The Simpsons can apply to our daily lives. Ditto Steven Wright “jokes.”
    Of course, nothing can beat, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Useful in so many circumstances.

  4. Kathy says:

    KE — I misspelled Bonnie Garmus’s name the first time around, in the version that went around to subscribers. Aaargh! Hate mistakes like that!

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