July 13, 2004

White bred

Reader Maya Hermann emailed:

... I think I've found an eggcorn in the wild. Either that, or I've been unwittingly using an eggcorn for years.

The word in question is the substitution of "white bred" for "white bread" to mean homogeneous or plain.

Maya cited this comment, attributed to "Lynne", on an Atrios thread:

I agree wholeheartedly about familiarity. I know my parents are good people at heart, but living in white-bred sub-rural New Hampster, they get hardly any experience with people of color, or any other minority for that matter. I know my mom wouldn't make the comments she does if she had a friend or family member who was black, gay, whatever.

Thank god I moved to MA...to a city with a lot of minorities. I feel much more exposed to life here. Yes, MA is still primarily white-bred, but nothing beats northern NE for closed-mindedness.

It's hard to be sure about Lynne, in this case, since she also uses the jokey substitution "New Hamster" for "New Hampshire" -- maybe white-bred is also a joke, for her? However, there are plenty of examples on the net that seem to reflect sincere misunderstandings. For example:

(link) If you want to hear four white-bred European jerk-offs sing the tunes of ABBA, why wouldn't you just go and buy an ABBA record?
(link) “(Pepperdine) doesn’t have any culture at all – it is very, very white-bred,” said senior Julee Bailey, who is black.
(link) I'm sure there's market research, where it's saying, (in a horribly stuffy white-bred voice) "We've found that the white background on a video cover sells more units than the…."

We've been using eggcorn as a term for the kind of sporadic folk etymology represented by interpreting acorn as "egg corn". "White bred" for "white bread" is an excellent example of the subspecies where the sounds are not just similar, but identical, and where the misinterpretation makes at least as much sense as the original.

The AHD glosses white-bread as "Blandly conventional, especially when considered as typical of white middle-class America"; this is a metonymic generalization of white bread as "Bread made from finely ground, usually bleached wheat flour". The original thought process seems to be that by the middle of the 20th century, white bread had become the standard form of American bread, but was also relatively soft, bland, textureless and geographically uniform. The generic opposition of the term white bread to brown bread probably also helped provoke the metonymic generalization from food to culture.

According to the OED, the use of white bread for actual bread goes back to the 14th century, and brown bread has citations from 1489 onward. The OED lists white-bread, a. as "colloq. (orig. and chiefly N. Amer.). Freq. depreciative", glossed as "Of, belonging to, or representative of the (North American) white middle-classes; bourgeois; (hence) strait-laced, conventional; bland or innocuous." The earliest citations given are these:

1977 Newsweek 3 Oct. 60 He [sc. Richard Pryor] walked off the Aladdin Hotel stage in Las Vegas, fed up with doing ‘white bread’ humor.
1979 TV Guide 13 Jan. 30/2 The contrast between his white-bread liberalism and the boys' ghetto wit is the basis of all the comedy in Diff'rent Strokes.

However, I'm pretty sure that I heard the same usage at least as early as the middle 1960s.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2004 05:46 AM