August 14, 2004

Hand fisted

A few days ago, Linda Seebach emailed an "eggcorn alert", citing an August 11 post by Jane Galt at Asymmetrical Information that uses "handfisted" in place of the expected "hamfisted":

Some protesters I know have offered to "pay" for their trouble by volunteering to work in the park, but that won't fly for several reasons.

1) Most New Yorkers I know couldn't plant a fern in their windowsill without a Time-Life instruction manual and a team of landscapers

2) They neglected to raise the money to replace the damaged greenery, a not-inconsiderable expense

3) The public sector unions aren't going to let a team of handfisted amateurs take their overtime away.

This is a sensible mistake, as eggcorns usually are -- in fact, it makes more sense to attribute clumsy manipulation to a fisted hand than to a "ham hand", whatever exactly that is. Still, the socially sanctioned idiom is "ham fisted", and "hand fisted" is clearly a misunderstanding.

There's no question that this particular substitution is due to "Jane Galt", but many of the other examples on the web are in transcripts of commentators, reporters and other talking heads, where it's up for grabs whether the error is due to the speaker, the transcriptionist, some editor, or a combination of these.

For example, on April 4, 2003, Mark Shields and David Brooks were on PBS discussing the Iraq war, and Brooks said (according to the transcript)

I guess my first reaction was sort of visceral. I was appalled at the way the generals and officers in the Pentagon went leak happy to the New Yorker and to the Washington Post in particular. This goes back pre-9/11 to the transformation that Rumsfeld and people associated with him tried to do to the military, which hurt the army, helped some other parts. And he did it in a hand fisted way, which is his style, and he made a lot of people angry.

The audio indicates that this was probably a transcriptionist's eggcorn for the expected "ham fisted" Granted, it's hard to tell. Brooks says something like [ˈɦæ̃ˌfɪs.ɾɪd], that is, he produces the initial consonant and (nasalized) vowel that "hand" and "ham" share, and then transitions directly into the [f] of "fisted" without more than a pitch period or two of nasal murmur -- if that much. This pronunciation is somewhat easier to get to as an approximation to "ham", but it could also be a contextually reduced version of "hand".

This case is a good example of why one should be careful about making fun of public figures based on reported speech errors. Unfortunately, it's not always so easy to find the original audio to check.

CNN correspondent Matthew Chance, reporting from London on April 9, 2004, said (again about Iraq, and again according to the transcript) that

There's been criticism in the British press as well for the U.S. handling of the occupation. It's been called hand-fisted, even misguided. So, a general sense of dismay in the British press on this one-year anniversary since that toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue.

This could have been a transcriptionist's error -- perhaps even the same one, though I don't know if the Jim Lehrer News Hour uses FDCH as CNN does. Anyhow, because CNN doesn't keep old shows available on line, it seems that I'd have to give FDCH a significant sum for a video tape of the show in question, in order to confirm my suspicion that Chance said "ham fisted" rather than "hand fisted".

On Oct. 5, 2001, the Foreign Policy Association held an interview with R. Scott Appleby, whose transcript quotes him as saying

Oh, I don't think it's a clash of civilizations, Sam Huntington's phrase, in the most extraordinary sense that he means it. But there are elements of truth in that thesis. There are real differences in the way cultures and religiously based civilizations think about issues from gender relations to sexual relations to education to military use to images of God, and these are not insignificant for the way these cultures make political decisions. What's too hand-fisted about that thesis, or about the way it is often interpreted, is that it overlooks the real fact of diversity within these civilizations and different levels of assimilation into a cosmopolitan version of Islam or any tradition.

The audio is no longer available on line -- the link is dead -- so again we can't tell who is responsible. In this case, the FPA editors must be at least a bit complicit, since presumably someone checked the interview transcript.

It strikes me, by the way, that the culture of writing must significantly decrease the development and spread of eggcorns. Eggcorn invention and adoption must be much commoner in pre-literate (or post-literate) cultures. Perhaps there should be a subdiscipline of eggcornology after all, to study such questions.

[By the way, one of the comments on the cited Jane Galt post opines that "it's a bit of British slang rather than American", but I'm skeptical -- the OED has one citation for "hamfisted", seven for "ham-fisted" and one for "ham fisted", but none for "handfisted", "hand-fisted" or "hand fisted".]


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 14, 2004 01:14 PM