June 22, 2004

Tongue and cheek, hole in corner

Fernando Pereira emailed an "eggcorn alert": tongue and cheek for tongue in cheek.

This one is among the 780 errors listed on Paul Brians' Common Errors in English site.

You could certainly make up a story to explain the phrase tongue and cheek -- it makes as much sense as a lot of idioms do -- but it's not a sanctioned collocation, even though (as Fernando points out) it has 9,280 Google hits. That's 2,166 whG/bp (web hits on Google per billion pages). The original phrase "tongue in cheek" has 330,000 Google hits, or about 77,009 whG/bp.

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between an incompetent editor and a very subtle joke, as in this sentence from a recent AP story:

(link) In a tongue-and-cheek opinion poll released Friday, 30 percent of 1,277 people aged 35 and older, said Swedish success on the pitch would increase their sex drive.

On reflection, it's probably safe to bet on incompetence.

Just to keep the prepositions and conjunctions in balance, I'll pick a random idiom of the form NOUN and NOUN, and see whether we can find NOUN in NOUN. We should be able to count on substitutions in both directions being common, since the sounds are nearly identical except in facultative pronunciations. Sure enough, "hole in corner" has 548 Google hits by comparison to 2,840 for "hole and corner", or about one (possible) eggcorn per 5.2 originals.

However, most of the instances of "hole in corner" are for real:

(link) Cut a small hole in corner of bag; squeeze to drizzle over madeleines.
(link) Install valve in the provided hole in corner post (Fig. 5) and attach water supply line.
(link) ISBN:671-10303-2. cover has small hole in corner, worn and torn from use, book in very good condtion.

Some others are certainly mistaken versions of the idiom, including uses by journalists and (other) intellectuals:

(link) This is odd because similar hole-in-corner meetings to create the fiction of grassroots support for such assemblies are being organised in all England's other eight "Euro-regions" (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London already have their assemblies).
(link) These considerations indicate that, appearances to the contrary, Qumran was hardly the hole-in-corner establishment the "Essene" hypothesis would lead us to expect.

as well as other uses in less intellectual contexts:

(link) They have been taught so very well by their Boomer parents; who, in turn, were taught so very well by their Authoritarian Hole-in-corner Parents, or A-hole for short.

In fact, I suspect that you have to be pretty literate to know this idiom well enough even to get it wrong. In any case, the mistake is not common enough to make Paul Brians' list.

The OED has citations for "hole and corner" starting in 1835 -- I wonder when the eggcorn "hole in corner" started?

hole-and-corner adj. phr.

Done or happening in a ‘hole and corner’, or place which is not public; secret, private, clandestine, under-hand. Contemptuously opposed to ‘public’ or ‘open’.

1835 FONBLANQUE Eng. under 7 Administ. (1837) III. 205 Hole-and-corner meetings are got up to speak the voice of the nation.
1839 STONEHOUSE Axholme 77 Any manufacturer of the hole and corner political petitions of the present day.
1862 H. KINGSLEY Ravenshoe III. 55 Tell me at once what this hole-and-corner work means.
1878 S. WALPOLE Hist. Eng. I. vi. 600 The Queen's friends declared that the King's supporters were ‘hole-and-corner’ men.

WordNet (and various derivatives and rip-offs thereof) sanctions hole-in-corner as a synonym of hole-and-corner, but I haven't been able to find any other dictionaries that do so. In particular, Webster's 2nd, Webster's 3rd, the OED, the American Heritage Dictionary and Encarta don't mention it.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 22, 2004 12:03 AM