January 07, 2004

And the bead goes on

Yesterday I wrote about people who pronounce vowels the same way as vows. I'm not one of them, but like many English speakers, I've taken a step or two myself down the slippery slope towards turning syllable-final /l/ into a vowel -- what linguists call vocalization. The /l/ at the end of bell is still phonetically a lateral consonant for me, pronounced with the blade of my tongue in contact with the roof of my mouth. However, the /l/ in belfry has gone over to the vowel side, so to speak. If you were to record me saying belfry and play the first syllable back very slowly, it would sound like "beh-oh". When I say belfry, my tongue never makes contact with the roof of my mouth at all.

The fact that some people say vowels like vows doesn't in itself explain why they come to the strange conclusion that "wedding vows" are "wedding vowels". No one in Google's ken has written about "a hoarse of another color", perhaps because confusing an adjective for a homophonous noun is rare. Of course, we don't always owe an explanation for such mistakes, especially idiosyncratic ones. Egg corns and mondegreens and other lexical reshapings are sometimes pretty random: when someone hears "the girl with kaleidescope eyes" as "the girl with colitis goes by", I think we need to chalk it up to neural noise and move on.

However, "wedding vowels" is one of the cases where we can tell a pretty convincing story, at least after the fact. Using the word vowels to refer to a ritual promise looks like another example of synecdoche, the practice of referring to objects in terms of their salient parts (like jocks for athletes or hands for sailors) or their salient materials (like steel for a sword). If letters can stand for writing in "arts and letters", why shouldn't vowels stand for speaking in "wedding vowels"?

Well, because the expression is really "wedding vows." But the theory that it's "wedding vowels", while mistaken, is arguably common because it's poetically as well as phonetically and syntactically apt.

Another common poetic mistake is the substitution of beat for bead in the expression "get a bead on" or "draw a bead on". In Monday's New York Times, sportswriter Thomas George quotes Denver coach Mike Shanahan as saying about Peyton Manning:

"That was a great game plan and it was executed as well as I've ever seen. We came into a hornet's nest. Once he gets a beat on you, he is hard to stop."

I'm sure that Mike Shanahan is one of the great majority of North Americans for whom "gets a bead on" and "gets a beat on" are pronounced in exactly the same way, due to voicing and flapping of the word-final /t/ in "beat" before the initial vowel of "on". So the theory that Shanahan said beat and not bead came from the sportswriter, who spelled it, and not from the coach, who spoke it.

The original version of this idiom involves the word bead, for which the OED gives this sense:

d. The small metal knob which forms the front sight of a gun; esp. in the phrase (of U.S. origin) to draw a bead upon: to take aim at.

and credits the first citation for this sense to John James Audubon, who was as familiar with drawing beads as drawing birds:

1831 AUDUBON Ornith. Biogr. I. 294 He raised his piece until the bead (that being the name given by the Kentuckians to the sight) of the barrel was brought to a line with the spot he intended to hit. 1841 CATLIN N. Amer. Ind. (1844) I. x. 77, I made several attempts to get near enough to ‘draw a bead’ upon one of them. 1844 MARRYAT Settlers II. 206 ‘Now, John,’ said Malachi; ‘get your bead well on him.’ 1875 URE Dict. Arts II. 391 The front sight is that known as the bead-sight, which consists of a small steel needle, with a little head upon it like the head of an ordinary pin, enclosed in a steel tube. In aiming with this sight, the eye is directed..to the bead in the tube. 1919 Chambers's Jrnl. June 399/1 I'd got a lovely bead on her with one of my own torpedoes. 1929 G. MITCHELL Myst. Butcher's Shop xii. 132 You've got a bead on your man all right.

The commonest theory about this idiom still has bead: in Google's current index, the various forms of "draw(s)/drew/drawn a X on" and "get(s)/got/gotten a X on" have 14,995 hits for X=bead vs. 640 hits for X=beat. But Americans don't spend as much time looking at things over a bead sight as they used to -- even those who regularly use a rifle for hunting probably have a telescopic sight -- so this metaphor is getting old and stale.

The sportswriters seem to have stepped in with a fresh idea, making a new idiom out of an old one. In sports, the idea of getting a (musical) beat ahead of someone else makes sense -- marching to a different and faster drummer, so to speak. And it seems to be in sports where a significant fraction of the "get a beat on" examples come up:

"But, when Chance Mock's pass was slightly under-thrown, freshman Aaron Ross closed in quickly, got a beat on the pass and lunged to make a TD-saving breakup."

"They wanted the deep plays, the big plays early in the game. Fortunately, they didn't get them. We really had to sit back and see what was happening. Then we got a beat on what they were trying to do. We just tried to get after them."

"They're definitely the hardest team to prepare for in the NFL because they run so many different types of plays. Once you think you've got a beat on it, they'll change the whole playbook the next week. "

"Clark said his Eagles 'never really got a beat on' Shenandoah’s wing-T offense and that was most apparent during the Hornets’ opening drive."

"He’s got a beat on a sweet gig teaching youth hockey in Kiev."

But there are non-sports examples as well:

"Law's picture ends up in a lot of newspapers; Nazi intelligence gets a beat on him, and they send out their own master marksman (Ed Harris) to pick him off."

"Signature Move: Flying the Blackhawk BELOW the tree line through the streets of DC Lost Village straffing soldiers with the help of a gunner taking out as many Opposition soldiers as possible before a stinger gets a beat on me."

"Buffy seems rather lukewarm with the whole thing, but Spike says he's got a beat on two vamps in a warehouse who are probably responsible for the train incident."

"Getting a beat on someone" has another poetic resonance that may be inspiring some of these writers: you could interpret beat as "an edge" or a "a competitive advantage," a nominalization of the verbal sense "to defeat [someone]." The "faster rhythm" and the "competitive advantage" interpretations both work better with "get a beat" than with "draw a beat", and the pattern of co-occurrences is consistent with this:


Especially for journalists, there might be yet another association, with beat as a regular assignment and thus an area of special competence. I guess we could ask Thomas George and other sportswriters what they think they meant when they wrote "...get a beat on..." But I doubt that we can depend on journalists to be any better than poets are at explaining their ambiguities. And in the end, what matters to the development of the language is less what they meant to write than what we manage to read.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 7, 2004 04:43 AM