May 14th, 2008

Sir Loin, the Knight Who Never Was

By is a Web site dedicated to debunking myths and affirming truths. It cites sources better than I ever did in any of my college papers.

For instance, if you happen to hear an urban myth about your dishwasher detergent causing a highly contagious form of chicken pox that begins with purple and orange welts on your body and ends with you reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” in Gaelic you go to to see if it’s really true. Could it really happen?

Most of the time the answer is “No.”

Here’s a great one I found about the origin of the word “sirloin.” Check it out:

Claim:   A choice cut of beef taken from the upper hindquarter (i.e., the loin) of a cow is called “sirloin” because an English king was once so delighted with his meal that he knighted the meat, dubbing it “Sir Loin.”

Status:   False.

Origins:   If we needed proof that inventing silly stories to explain the origins of words with non-obvious etymologies is both an old and long-lived practice, here it is: Across nearly four centuries, various writers have chronicled the tale that an English king especially fond of fine dining (any one of a succession from Henry VIII to Charles II) coined the word “sirloin” by knighting a choice piece of meat, thereby introducing “Sir Loin” to the world. Even the venerable Samuel Johnson included the anecdote in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), noting under the definition of the word “sir” that it was “A title given to the loin of beef, which one of our kings knighted in a fit of good humour.”

While it is certainly possible that one or more kings of England has repeated this pun, the joke cannot be the source of the word “sirloin,” which appeared in English as far back as the mid-sixteenth century, antedating the ascension of any of the named kings (save Henry VIII) to the throne. More importantly, though, it was not until the eighteenth century that the word “sirloin” came to be commonly spelled with an “i” — until then it was generally written as “surloin,” indicating that it came from the Middle French surlonge (sur meaning “over” and longe meaning “loin”), just as the word “surname” came from the same French root (sur), indicating a family name that was used “over” (i.e., in addition to) one’s Christian name.

That’s fun stuff. You can click here for the entire Snopes story.

I wish I had thought of “Sir Loin.” I could have made a fortune writing children’s books with the valiant knight as its main character. The costume might be a little tricky, though. What on earth would he wear?