August 26, 2004


Bill Hobbs of HobbsOnLine wrote on Aug. 23

I must admit I'm rooting for the USA's Olympic basketball team - which Donald Sensing notes has made history by losing twice in one Olympiad - to lose again and again, so that they don't win a medal. C'mon, admit it. The thought of Allen Iverson having a gold medal, or even a silver or a bronze, makes you want to wretch, too.

No, I think that Allen Iverson is a skillful and courageous player, who is gradually finding out that Larry Brown is right about what it takes to win in international as well as NBA basketball. I hope that Iverson and the rest of the U.S. team can adjust in time to win an Olympic medal.

And like basketball, English is a team sport. It's a creative bit of lexical shot-selection for Bill Hobbs to act as if retch "to vomit" were a verbal form of wretch "a miserable, unfortunate, or unhappy person; a person regarded as base, mean, or despicable". But individual creativity isn't enough, and so Bill looks like a fool in front of an international audience.

Wretch comes from Old English wrecca "exiles", while retch comes from Old English hræ̅can "to clear the throat, to bring up plegm". Words from diverse sources that wind up being pronounced the same way often fall together, as has happened with pole. But the whole team of English speakers has to agree about this, otherwise it doesn't work. If you just hoist up an off-balance word without thinking about your teammates, Bill, that makes you a self-involved jerk.

Of course, there are a lot of people who play the game the way that Bill does. Google finds 577 pages with "want to wretch", vs. 1660 for "want to retch". So Bill's move will work on the playground, but not at higher levels of the game.

[Eggcorn alert via email from Linda Seebach]

[And no, I don't really think that non-standard written English brands someone as a selfish jerk. I just felt that it would be polite to address Mr. Hobbs in his own idiom.

More seriously, I was just as unfair to Hobbs as he was to Iverson. Skill, creativity and individual initiative are things to be treasured, in language as in basketball, and so are tradition, cooperation and attention to the fundamentals. Iverson has a well-deserved reputation as a hotdog, though he also plays with passion and intensity despite injuries, while Hobbs just made one little lexical slip, of a kind that I've made many times myself. But I'm rooting for Iverson to win by learning more of what Larry Brown has been trying to teach him, not for him to lose by continuing to ignore it.]

[Update: Adrian Wojnarowski at has a positive outlook on Iverson's attitude and behavior at the Olympics. ]

Olympics Posted by Mark Liberman at August 26, 2004 07:16 AM