February 08, 2004

An Orthographic Eggcorn?

Twice in the last week I've come across the spelling lynchpin for what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as `a pin passed through the end of an axle-tree to keep the wheel in its place'. Both the OED and Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (9th edition) give the standard spelling of the word as linchpin. It's from an Old English word lynis, meaning `linchpin', to which a redundant pin was later added (redundant in much the same way as the is redundant in the hoi polloi.) But the vowel spelled y in Old English later merged with Old English i and is normally spelled i in Modern English, as in kiss from Old English kyss-an, so the Old English vowel sound can't account for the odd Modern English spelling lynchpin. Webster's does give an alternate spelling lynchpin, but it's clearly indicated as the less favored spelling. The OED doesn't have a modern spelling with y.

So why did two different writers use the spelling lynchpin? The context suggests a clue: although in both cases this word was used in its usual modern sense of a crucial linking element tying two concepts together, the surrounding passages concerned minority-group members. I suspect that the spelling was a folk etymology, an eggcorn, that replaced the unfamiliar element linch with the familiar word lynch -- all too familiar a word when the topic is minority groups in the United States. If I'm right about this, it's only the spelling that signals the eggcorn, because lynchpin of course sounds just like linchpin.

The word lynch, by the way, has no etymological connection with linch(pin). The OED says that lynch is derived from lynch law, a modern American phrase whose origin is obscure. One claim, according to the OED, is that it comes from a Mr. Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace who was given to imprisoning people without bothering about any formal legal proceedings; but Mr. Lynch has his defenders, who assert that he never did any such thing. And it seems that the original penalties suffered under lynch law were unpleasant but not fatal, involving things like whipping or tarring & feathering. Times changed.

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 8, 2004 11:24 PM