January 23, 2004

Shoe in and hone in

Neal Whitman writes:

"I was recently thinking about how annoying it is when people write that someone is a "shoe-in" and not a "shoo-in," when all of a sudden I realized that I had an eggcorn on my hands. I checked to verify that it really was "shoe-in" and not "shoo-in" that was the eggcorn, at http://www.word-detective.com/100297.html#shoe-in."

It looks to me like Geoff Pullum's coinage is catching on.

While we're on the subject, maybe someone can enlighten me about the history and status of home in on vs. hone in on.   I've always assumed, based partly on the meaning and partly on the fact that home in was what I learned first, that home in is the original construction, and hone in is an alternative based on misconstruing it.

Google has 33,000 hits for "hone in on" and 56,000 for "home in on." The returns for "hone in on" include an entry in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English telling us that "hone in on is an erroneous version of home in on, attributed to George Bush among others." (From the 1993 date of publication, this must be Bush 41 not Bush 43). The OED doesn't have either home in on or hone in on. The American Heritage Dictionary has hone in on without any usage note (though the etymology field does call hone in "an alteration of home in"), and of course gives the verbal meaning of home from which the phrasal verb is derived: "to go or return home ... to be guided to a target ..."   The Word Detective (cited by Neal Whitman above) is silent on the subject.

Either expression requires a metaphorical broadening of the core meaning of the base word (home or hone), and both metaphors are somewhat plausible. I personally still find the home usage more persuasive -- the hone version grates on me, as evidence of such differences often does -- but the expression hone in on has recently been used in an MIT news release, a Reuters news story (picked up and printed in the Washington Post among other places), and many other reputable outlets.

So in the end, I'm not sure what's going on here.

Perhaps Columbia should change their entry to read "hone in on is considered by some to be an erroneous version of home in on, attributed to MIT and Reuters among others," and give the Bush bashing a rest already.

[Update: more here. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 23, 2004 06:47 AM