January 26, 2004

Unbridled eggcorns

In Straight Man, Richard Russo's 1997 comedy of academic manners, we find this passage:

My not having concrete information to report was evidence to Finny, were any needed, that I was attempting to scuttle the search for a new chair, a search that I've not been in favor of from the beginning. My position has been that our department is so deeply divided, that we have grown so contemptuous of each other over the years, that the sole purpose of bringing in a new chair from the outside was to prevent any of us from assuming the reigns of power. We're looking not so much for a chair as for a blood sacrifice. [p. 17]

English is full of horse-harness metaphors, most of them having to do with establishing or losing control ("it's time to rein in ICANN"; "carnal excess, unbridled lust and limitless perversity"; "the new Johnston Board of Education chairman took the bit in his teeth last week") or with struggling against curbs and burdens ("manufacturing is saddled with an image problem"; "economic gains hobbled by spending spree").

All of these expressions are moribund now, because so few of us have anything to do with horses in our daily lives. The result? Eggcorns. Is there another word that sounds like the name of a piece of horse harness, with a meaning that resonates in any way with the force of one of these expressions? Then it's likely to get substituted.

Google has 22,900 instances of "reins of power" (the original horse-harness metaphor) and 7,120 instances of "reigns of power" (the eggcorn substitution). Aside from novelist Russo, reign fans include Human Rights Watch ("When President Yoweri Museveni ... took over the reigns of power in Uganda in 1986 ..."), the BBC ( "Having emerged from relative obscurity, General Suharto carefully set about grasping the reigns of power ..."), the New York Observer ("... the prematurely middle-aged, finally, somewhat belatedly taking the reigns of power for which they had long practiced"), and many other reputable sources.

We can also find "packed full with moments of unbrided genius", "unbrided fury of winter frost", "it brings unbrided joy to my heart", "carnalised unbrided crazyness", and "Blair called for unbrided access to genetic data". And "If anything's guaranteed to blight a celestial coaching career, being yolked to a rotting corpse of a club like Tottenham is it", and "the colonised displaying the colonial maladies that stem from being yolked to the coloniser". OK, yokes are for oxen, but the idea is the same.

I'd prospect on the web for more unbridled eggcorns, but I need to brave the "unbrided fury of winter" to walk across campus for a meeting. I could get to like that expression. If you think about it, the aggression of a young man who hasn't been mellowed by marriage is more familiar to most of us, these days, than the willfulness of a horse without a headstall.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 26, 2004 01:01 PM