August 25, 2004

A marquee eggcorn

Linda Seebach emailed an interesting substitution, found in Mark Bauerlein's review of Gerald Graff's memoir Clueless in Academe, from the Winter 2003-2004 issue of Academic Questions:

"The press catalogues market these efforts as a record of change in the humanities, an insightful recapitulation leavened with a veteran's ken, and the authors' marquis footing seems to bear them out ."

This is not the most transparent sentence ever written. Can you really leaven a recapitulation with a ken? Be that as it may, Linda suggests that Bauerlein probably meant marquee where marquis is printed, and I think she's right.

Because marquee can mean "A rooflike structure, often bearing a signboard, projecting over an entrance, as to a theater or hotel", and because featured performers are traditionally named on a theater marquee's signboard, marquee has come to mean something like "featured" or "famous". For example, Google has 9,090 hits for "marquee player" and "marquee players". The OED indicates that this meaning is "orig. and chiefly U.S.", and glosses it as

designating a celebrity, star attraction, etc., whose name appears or is worthy to appear in the billing of a film, show, etc., or (allusively) who has achieved great fame and popularity.

Since marquis means "A nobleman ranking below a duke and above an earl or a count", and is often pronounced the same as marquee -- that would be [ˌmɐɹˈki], just to help you towards your recommended minimum daily allowance of IPA -- it's expected that some people would misinterpret "marquee player" as using the word marquis to mean something like "an aristocratic or high-status -- and therefore high-quality -- player". And indeed Google finds 2,312 pages with "marquis player" and "marquis players".

Other common modifier uses include "marquee names" (25,600 ghits vs. 250 for "marquis names"), and "marquee status" (1,420 ghits, vs. 29 for "marquis status").

"Marquee footing" is slightly odd, though perhaps no odder than those ken-leavened recapitulations. Linda observed in her email that Bauerlein starts out by saying, "One of the sadder spectacles of academe today is that of the eminent, near-retirement humanities professor reflecting on a long career", and continues with references to "... the topmost faculty ...", and so forth, so that it's clear that he's focusing on social status. Thus the hypothesis that he means "marquis footing" to mean "high status" is a plausible one. On this hypothesis, his use of "marquis" is an eggcorn, which is what we've taken to calling a sporadic folk etymology.

As Arnold Zwicky recently reminded us , "'eggcorn. ... is the name of a mental phenomenon; you have to know what someone intended, not just what they did." And in the case of published texts, it's worse than that -- you also have to deal with the problem of attributional abduction. Maybe it wasn't Bauerlein, but rather some copy editor at Academic Questions who made a change that Bauerlein didn't catch in the page proofs.

But in this particular case, there's an extra layer of eggcornic irony. Marquee is originally an English and/or American backformation from marquise, the feminine form of marquis! According to the OED, marquee is

Prob. < French marquise (although app. not attested until 1718 in this sense: see MARQUISE n.), the final / z / prob. being interpreted as -s plural.

The development of the putative source Marquise is described this way:

< French marquise marchioness (c1393 in Middle French), feminine form corresponding to marquis MARQUIS n.1 (replacing earlier marchise, 13th cent. in Old French); used of various objects and fashions regarded as elegant or pleasing, hence: a kind of pear (1690), a canopy placed over a tent (1718; cf. MARQUEE n.), a type of settee (1770), a canopy in front of a building (1835), a ring with an elongated stone or setting, a diamond cut as a navette (late 19th cent.), a style of woman's hat (1889).

So marquee is the result of misinterpreting the final /z/ of French marquise as if it were the plural of a native English word, used to describe certain kinds of tents and canopies. This reanalysis took place in the late 17th century and early 18th centuries, and the spelling marquee was settled by 1800 or a bit earlier, with alternatives like markee and marki found earlier in the process.

The OED was able to find only one example of this usage being spelled marquis, in 1788:

1788 F. GROSE Mil. Antiq. II. Descr. Plates 2 A field-officer's tent or marquis.

and says that this is likely a misspelling or typographical error rather than any evidence of a more general pattern. So there's no chance that Bauerlein (or that copy editor) is reverting to a classical norm.

To recapitulate, we have:

marquise "French noblewoman" comes to mean "various objects regarded as elegant" and specifically "tent or canopy".
Then there's an eggcorn-like backformation: marquise "tent or canopy" is re-interpreted as the plural of marquee "tent or canopy".
This becomes the social norm, and a new word is born.
Then marquee = "(theater) canopy" comes to mean "star attraction worthy of marquee billing".
And finally, another eggcorn happens: marquee "star attraction" is re-interpreted as a use of marquis "French nobleman".

If you're interested in the content of Bauerlein's review, here's a longer discussion by Rose at No Credentials.

[Update: on another analytic dimension, Trevor at kaleboel emails:

Great fun, but wouldn't "maquis" be a more likely source? Some might wish to compare Gerald Graff's not-so-secret secret battle to save literature (and students) from academia to the heroic liberation struggle of the French resistance; others might see a vague resemblance between his beard and the Mediterranean scrub from which the maquis took their name.

I had considered the first of these hypotheses, and failed to find any textual support for it, but Trevor's analytic conjectures usually reward scrutiny. As a bearded academic myself, I'll take his "Mediterranean scrub" crack to be one of the exceptions. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 25, 2004 05:57 AM