July 14, 2004

Crime wave

We call them eggcorns -- "tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity". The Guardian calls them "word crimes".

On July 7, Oxford University Press published a new edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and apparently sent around a press release that described an associated corpus-based study of punctuation, spelling and word-choice errors.

The Guardian reported this as follows:

One of the epidemic errors of the past 30 years - unnecessary, misplaced or omitted apostrophes in the words "its"and "it's" - has dwindled to only about 8% of people, possibly because the mistake has drawn so much ridicule...

But it has been replaced by misuse of "diffuse" or "defuse" (as in "A coach can diffuse the situation by praising the players").

Research for the new Concise Oxford English Dictionary, published today, found that this word crime was committed in some 50% of examples on the database. It is now rated as the commonest in the language.

The comparable story in the Independent describes these substitutions as "mass dyslexia", in quotes. I haven't been able to find the OUP press release, so I don't know if these striking examples of the "linguistic variation is crime" and "linguistic variation is disease" metaphors should be attributed to OUP or to the journalists involved.

As our on-going eggcorn collection indicates, I certainly recognize that things like using "diffuse" for "defuse" or "tow the line" for "toe the line" are non-standard word substitutions. But crime and dyslexia are pretty strong terms for sensible though incorrect ideas about linguistic analysis.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 14, 2004 09:06 AM