Even More Contamination
Posted by Neal on March 26, 2008
I told Doug the joke that ends with the punchline, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” He loved it, and told it to his mom that night. He started out:
Some psychiatrists did an experiment on two kids. One was an optimist, and the other was a pestimist….
He told it to his friends who came over the next day. First he had to explain the unfamiliar vocabulary to them:
An optimist is someone who always looks for the good things. A pestimist is someone who….
Then he proceeded with the joke, telling about how the psychiatrists put the pessimistic boy in a room full of all the best toys, and the optimist in a room full of horse manure. And how when they checked in on the boys a short time later,
The pestimist was just sitting there, not playing with any of the toys.
As Doug finished up with the optimist who was eagerly digging through all the manure and uttering the punchline, I was thinking: What a poorly controlled experiment! The psychiatrists changed two variables: the kids’ dispositions, and the environment they placed them in. These people called themselves scientists?
Oh, and I also concluded that pestimist was not a slip of the tongue on Doug’s part. This is another case of contamination! We have our two words that sound somewhat alike, with related meanings: optimist, pessimist. And we have one of them becoming even more like the other one phonetically: pessimist –> pestimist.
Longtime readers may remember me talking about contamination with Adam’s counting, or with Doug’s pronunciation of appendix. And while I’m on the subject, here’s one more that I heard from Doug back in the fall: His piano teacher was teaching him about legato and staccato, but when Doug told me about it, he talked about legato and stegato.
It looks like he’s not alone for either kind of contamination: I find Google hits for both pestimist and stegato.
But back to optimists and pestimists: I hypothesized that Doug had interpreted the string -timist as a morpheme meaning something like “outlook on life”, and had op- and pes- with the positive and negative meanings. However, when I wrote both words (with his spelling) and asked him to circle the part that they had in common, he surprised me by circling only -mist. He explained that he got the pesti- part by thinking there must be some connection between this word and the standalone word pest. So it sounds like this is a case of contamination aided and abetted by some folk etymology.