January 24, 2004

Homing in on honing in on

Language Hat wrote yesterday, inviting me to be less incoherent about the origin and status of the phrase honing in on:

I'm not quite sure what you're saying. Surely you're not implying that "hone in" is possibly the original? According to the M-W Concise Dict of Eng Usage, it's attested only from 1965 (George Plimpton, Paper Lion), and since then mainly in reported speech. "Home in" is much earlier. There's no question that "hone" is a mishearing/misunderstanding. It is, of course, rapidly gaining ground and may well wind up the victor, but that's a separate issue.


Steve's right, of course. And several people, David Nash first, wrote to point out that I somehow missed the OED's history of "home in on."

Let me try to clarify what (little) I now know about the history, and what I think some of the forces at work are, and why I'd like to know more. Though I'll confess to a recreational curiosity about the expressions themselves, there are a couple of larger issues here that may excuse an indulgence in lexicographical minutiae. (And if not, it's our policy to refund your subscription fees, cheerfully and in full!)

I had guessed that home in on was a recent expression, probably from WWII, and the OED's history supports this. Since Bush 41 was a bomber pilot in the pacific theater, he would probably have learned the phrase just as it was coming into existence, and if he really learned it as hone in on, then the two variants must have co-existed pretty much from the beginning.

And as is usually the case with common eggcorns, there is quite a bit of semantic support for the hone in on variant. There's so much semantic support in this case that hone in on is by no means implausible as a coinage on its own. Google suggests that the two variants are about equally common today, and the hone in on variant now occurs in places like MIT press releases and Washington Post presentations of Reuters newswire stories.

So maybe hone in on appeared as an independent (if echoic) coinage, just at the time when home in on began to be used in general discourse. If all that is true, then the whole thing is an interesting example of the interplay of social, semantic and phonetic forces in vocabulary development. The process is likely to be well documented in texts (e.g. newspapers from the last half of the 20th century) that are increasingly available in digital form and searchable on line.

For those who still haven't had enough and too much of homing and honing, here are some of the details.

The OED has homing used for "the faculty possessed by animals (e.g. pigeons, turtles, etc.) of returning home from a distance". There's one marginal citation from 1765 ("When they come to be trained for the homing part") but the real uses start in 1875. The first citations for the verbal use of home with animals is likewise 1875 Live Stock Jrnl. 23 Apr. 57/3 Pigeons home by sight and instinct. The first extended use with humans is 1893 Nat. Observer 14 Oct. 559/1 Your tourist is homing from abroad. So the verb to home, in the relevant sense, seems to be a late-19th-C innovation, at least in general use.

The extended use meaning "[o]f a vessel, aircraft, missile, etc.: to be set, or guided, to its target or destination, by use of a landmark or by means of a radio beam" is first attested in 1920 Wireless World Mar. 728/2 The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if ‘homing’ towards a beacon. Other citations continue to have scare quotes through 1947. The first cited use of home on is 1940 Jrnl. R. Aeronaut. Soc. XLIV. 569 The tanker must be equipped with D.F. gear, so that the two aircraft may ‘home’ on each other if visibility is poor. And the first citation for home in on is 1956 Amer. Speech XXXI. 228 A good officer could even ‘home in on a bottle of whisky’ placed on the landing field.

Several other citations are given during the 1950s and 1960s using home on where I would have written home in on, e.g. 1958 ‘P. BRYANT’ Two Hours to Doom 58 Infra-red missiles which homed on the radiations given off from jet engines. 1962 F. I. ORDWAY et al. Basic Astronautics ix. 386 The guided vehicle then homes on the reflected signals as in the active case. The usage home in on doesn't seem to become the norm until the mid to late 1960s -- the OED's first citation for home in on without scare quotes is from 1971.

Steve's Plimpton citation for hone in on (in 1965) is barely 9 years after the earliest home in on citation in the OED (1956), and is apparently more or less from the same time when home in on was becoming a common expression in general usage. And as I said, if Bush 41 learned the expression as hone in on, some people must have adopted that variant pretty much from the beginning. So while I agree that home in on was almost certainly the original pattern, hone in on apparently followed it almost instantly.

Now what about the route for the (semi-) independent development from hone?

Let's ignore the old versions of hone meaning "to delay" and "to grumble" (which were news to me), and zero in on hone as "to sharpen on a hone". Though the noun hone is old (citations from 1300), its verbing is apparently more recent. The phrase "grinder or honer" is cited from 1824, and the first citation of hone as a straight-out verb is from 1826 (in Webster's dictionary!) with the meaning "to hone a razor."

Unfortunately, the OED's entry is very short and does not give any examples with extended meanings. However, at some point since Webster, hone began to be used in the various metaphorical senses that are now widespread and even clichéed: practicing to perfect a skill; adjusting the content or form of something to make it work better; etc. (Headline writers are especially fond of hone because it's short!)

Dennis Miller to hone his HBO special material at Irvine Improv this week
Poet heads for Virginia to hone his craft
Big names help Kerry hone his foreign policy message
Volunteer Work Helps Joyce Moran Hone Her Leadership Skills

Sometimes the meaning seems to be nothing more specific than "develop" or "improve" or "perfect": "Hogan began to hone her mellifluously spooky welter of torch songs and honky tonk anthems when she fronted the legendary peg-legged cabaret quartet, The Jody Grind."

But (consistent with its origins) hone often continues to have connotations of sharpening, suggesting that the development or improvement is accomplished by increases in precision and decreases in size or scope. It's often used with "down", perhaps as a kind of blend of hone "sharpen, improve" and pare down "remove excess material":

Bush has tried to hone down his message as much as possible to just two issues: tax cuts and education.
The eGGsters first heard about Raku in early 1995, when Mark was just beginning to hone down the concept.
You hone down your ideas so that when you go into the studio you're just going right for it.

Though some of these examples feel to me like they should have been "pare down", I reckon that's just a matter of stylistic choice. After all, we're talking about which metaphoric cliché is the appropriate one. And some examples don't trouble me at all, such as this passage from Alicia Jones' poem Anorexia:

Trying to undo all
the knots the female body has
tied, all the cyclical obligations,
to gush, to feed, she chooses

to hone her shape down,
her scapulae prepared like
thin birds, to fly away from
the spine.

You also see examples with the preposition in, like the shortshop at Mississippi State who is said to have "developed into a good situational hitter while honing in his offensive skills in fall practice", or the young woman in San Francisco who "is focusing on her new digital media company, Steakhaus Productions, after honing in her digital design skills at SFSU Multimedia Studies Program." Examples like this are clearly developments from hone, not echoes of any likely use of home.

From the uses of hone down X to mean "improve X by sharpening focus on the essentials and eliminating or ignoring extraneous material", it's not a very big step to hone in on Y = "reach Y by a process of successively sharpening focus while eliminating extraneous material." The independent plausiblity of hone in suggests that this step might sometimes take place spontaneously. Of course, the fact that home in on is also floating around in the world doubtless often helps to motivate the step. And there is surely also a sort of resonance effect, with home in on thereby playing a causal role in increasing the frequency of hone in on to the tipping point. But I'd still like to know when people started talking about someone "honing her skills" and "honing down his message" -- and "honing in on his target". It seems possible to me that hone in on began to develop out of hone down (and related sources) in parallel with the transfer of home in on from the specialized vocabulary of aeronautics to its popular use as a metaphor for refinement by successive approximation.

Finally, let me point out that there is a bit of leakage in the other direction, from hone down to home down. For example, one "Professor J. Crowley" of University College, Dublin, writes (for the Pompidou Group at the Council of Europe) that

"There is undoubtedly need for more experimental work and more epidemiological investigation, all the time homing down and fine tuning the precise impacts of the target drugs ... "

Malapropism or metaphor? Eggcorn or expressive originality? We report, you decide.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 24, 2004 12:29 PM