Andrey Zaliznyak, a Russian historical linguist, gave a talk last month “On professional and amateur linguistics” that can be read (in Russian) here (found via Anatoly). I recommend it to anyone who can read Russian; for those who can’t, I’ll translate an excerpt of general applicability:
In school they teach the spelling and grammar of one’s native language and elements of foreign ones, but they don’t give even a basic idea of how languages change over time. As a result, to satisfy their lively interest in questions related to language, most people must content themselves with whatever information they happen to read or encounter on radio and television. But many try to get answers to these questions by means of their own thoughts and guesses. The fact that they have mastered their own language gives them the feeling that they already possess everything they need to understand the subject, and they only need to think a little in order to get correct answers. In just such a way arises what can be called amateur linguistics.
It must be admitted that part of the blame for the situation lies with the linguists themselves, who take little trouble about the popularization of their science…
In discussing one folk etymology (relating помада [pomada] ‘pomade’ to the verb мазать [mazat’] ‘to grease, smear, anoint’), he makes the point that when confronted with the true etymology (the word is borrowed from French), available in Vasmer’s etymological dictionary, people are likely to say “So what? Vasmer has one hypothesis, and here’s another; why is it any worse?” That inability to see what makes one explanation better than another is a basic problem here as well as in Russia.
He gives an interesting example of a kind of nonsense that is apparently widespread in Russia: some people claim that “not only did Moscow exist before Rome [which is Rim in Russian], but it was by Moscow’s command that the Etruscans built the city and named it Mir [‘peace,’ ‘commune,’ ‘world’] in the spirit of Russian tradition. Since Etruscans read in the reverse direction, it was read as Rim. In this city, built by the Etruscans, for whom Russian was their native language and Etruscan was a kind of soldiers’ jargon, Russian was heard for a long time. Only much later, when Latins moved to Rome, did they distort it according to their own phonetics and grammar.”