August 27, 2004

Still on the eggcorn beet

Things have been busy here in Eggcornia (or, as some would have it, Eggcornea). Today's offerings: a thought-provoking class exercise from Larry Horn, which leads me to a discussion of "hidden eggcorns" and of classical malapropisms; a soc.motss thread on free reign (and related expressions) that ranges widely over eggcorn issues; another soc.motss exchange on marshall law; a long ADS-L thread on the verbs home and hone; an e-mail message with a catalogue of some of the great eggcorns of all time and a reference to education; and five more sets of (putative) eggcorns from ADS-L and e-mail.

1. Classroom fun from Larry Horn. Five examples of cross-language eggcorns:

We discussed in class the reanalysis of ad hominem (orig., 'to the person', i.e. directed at the person rather than the idea s/he supports) as revealed by ad feminam. Borrowed expressions typically lose transparency (for obvious reasons) and undergo reformation or semantic shift, often along folk-etymological lines. The reanalysis may be indicated by the context (as above), the spelling, or both. For 4 of the following 5 expressions in the contexts provided, give the original version of each borrowing, and explain the nature of the reanalysis. (HINT: the 5 expressions are based on loans from 4 different but closely related languages.)

a) bonified ('genuine, authentic'), as in:

"a bonified psychopath","a real life bonified issue", "a bonified replica", or "a bonified, official, you-better-buy-from-me Girl Scout cookie salesperson"

b) mano a mano, as in:

"Both shows [Prime Time Live and 20/20] had been going mano-a-mano, or rather womano-a-womano, competing for the same stories and interviews. (Surely you recall all those colorful Diane Sawyer-vs.-Barbara Walters tales.)" [Newsday, 1/24/01]

c) power mower, as in:

"Meanwhile, Richard Parker Bowles, brother of Camilla's ex-husband, Andrew, said that from the beginning Camilla approved of Charles marrying Diana while she remained his power mower. [Richmond, VA Times-Dispatch, Jan. 1995]

d) pre-Madonna, as in:

"[boxer Leila] Ali actually feels that [fellow boxer Christy] Martin is showing signs of fear. Ali describes Martin as a real pre-Madonna. According to Ali, Martin hired her own media people..."

[from a review of a San Francisco production of the musical "Chicago"] "Bianca Marroquin, a real pre-Madonna, boasts an almost innocent tawdriness and brings a refreshing gamine quality to Roxie Hart's need for fame."

e) (social) moray, as in:

"Smoldering passion? Bored promiscuity? Murder in an abortive duel? Love confounded by the conventions of social decorum? 'Eugene Onegin' has it all. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's operatic rendering of Alexander Pushkin's tale of aristocratic Russia, which opens Saturday at the Lyric Theatre, makes its case with a rare blend of restraint and the composer's typically over-the-top melodism... Lensky's rage over Onegin's flirtation with Olga (who is supposed to be his girlfriend) might seem a bit exaggerated today - until we stop to think that in Orthodox Russia, flirting was tantamount to fornication. 'Emotions are universal and timeless, but social morays are specific to a time and place. A lingering hand-kiss was the first step toward becoming engaged, whereas today we think nothing of embracing a total stranger.' "

"This is why, in general, men hate to dance: there are myriad social morays that guys need to concentrate on while strutting their stuff, the most important of which is the avoidance of any and all male-to-male body orientation while on the dance floor."

[Re directors Matt Stone and Trey Parker of "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut":] "Whereas the two creators of the television series by the same name have had to restrain themselves on Comedy Central, on the big screen they seem to have looked for every social moray available and farted on it. And it's hilarious."

" 'It's become almost a social moray' to marry someone close to your own age, she says."

Larry notes in e-mail to me:

One of my favorite ones not included here is "can't get untracked" (e.g. a baseball player or team in a slump), which appears to have derived from a reanalysis of "can't get on track" (of a train car). Of course being "untracked" would be a Good Thing, precisely the way being on track is for the train.

2. Hidden eggcorns. Most of the eggcorns we've been collecting show up in spelling. (The really obvious ones show up in pronunciation as well.) The writing system for English provides separate (historical) spellings for a great many homophones -- rain, reign, and rein, for instance, to look ahead just a bit -- and so lets us see reanalyses involving these lexical items.

But there are huge numbers of homophones that are also homographs: pen 'writing implement', pen 'enclosure for animals', and pen 'penitentiary', to choose a textbook example. If someone reanalyzes an expression involving one of these lexical items -- say, by conceptualizing State Pen as involving the 'enclosure for animals' word or by thinking that "The pen is mightier than the sword" is about prisons -- most of the time we won't have any evidence of this. As Larry Horn points out, sometimes context will suggest that a reanalysis has taken place. And sometimes people will actually tell you what word they had in mind. But most of the time there will be no way to tell. There probably are vast numbers of hidden eggcorns out there in English; we just don't detect them.

Things are different in languages with other sorts of writing systems. Mandarin eggcorns will be even easier to detect than English ones. Finnish or Turkish eggcorns will almost all be hidden. An eggcorn hunt in Helsinki or Istanbul will be a tough undertaking indeed, while one in Beijing will be a breeze.

3. Classical malapropisms. Eggcorns are a species of classical malapropism (CM, distinct from the inadvertent "Fay/Cutler malapropism", or FM) originating in reanalysis. In fact, a fair number of the classical malapropisms in my collection from the 70s (reported on in Language Sciences (1979) and in Obler & Menn, Exceptional Language and Linguistics (1982)) were eggcorns; my all-time favorite among them is cholesterol > cholester oil. (No, the -ol of cholesterol has nothing to do, historically, with oil.)

At the time, I saw CMs as arising primarily from two sources: "frozen slips of the ear" (SEs), that is, mishearings that were incorporated into the hearer's mental lexicon; and "frozen tip-of-the-tongue approximations", that is, TOT guesses that were incorporated into the speaker's mental lexicon. In fact, when I looked at the relationships involved in CMs, they were somewhat similar to the relationships involved in SEs and TOT approximations, but strikingly different from the relationships involved in FMs. That is, though in both a CM and a FM someone produces "the wrong word", the mechanisms at work seem to have little in common. If you ask "What happened?", the answer for a CM requires a trip back in the history of the speaker, but for a FM the answer is all about the moment of speech, here and now. (And then, of course, CMs can spread through the population, so that there come to be lots of people whose only error is in not knowing that their speech community is to some degree non-standard.)

I now think that I grossly underestimated the eggcorn portion of the CM inventory. Reanalysis is a third source of CMs, quite possibly the most important source. Evaluating that hypothesis will not be easy, though; it will take a lot more than the collection of fortuitous examples, fun though that may be.

4. Free reign on soc.motss. It started innocently enough on 8/24/04. Robert Coren checked out my last eggcorn posting on LL and inquired:

Interesting. I'm afraid I've forgotten (or never knew) exactly what an eggcorn is, although the examples are suggestive. Would "free reign" (which I was somewhat horrified to see in the introductory wall essay of a show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) count?

Before I could step in to say, well, yes, Michael Wharton (on 8/25/04) produced a spirited defense of free reign:

"Reign" accords with my understanding of the usage. What would the alternative spelling be, "free rain", meaning a situation in which precipitation is not charged for? The word spelled "reign" means dominance, control, or is a term for the leather straps used to control a horse. In that way, "free reign" seems perfectly appropriate - to allow the artist to paint, free of the controls (reigns) that might otherwise limit his creativity. I don't think the museum has made any mistake whatsoever.

In response to which Ken Rudolph sympathetically noted, "I think you've just illustrated how easy it is to make an eggcorn", and Mike McKinley, much less sympathetically, accused Wharton of being illiterate (a point I'll get to below). And I observed (in my uppercase-spare style) that this one had made the usage dictionaries:

MWDEU ("rein, reign") reports "in full reign" and "turn over the reigns", and from their own files, "free reign" from Harper's Bazaar in 1981 and People in 1987, plus "take the reigns" from TV Guide in 1986.

as MWDEU puts it, the word "rein" "has been driven into relative obscurity by the automobile" and is now known mostly to horse people. "reign", however, is still in general use, and it conveys the sense of control that these various originally horsey expressions have.

And Lee Rudolph (no relation to Ken) takes rein(s) > reign(s) back a bit further than MWDEU: "The standard edition of Yeats's _Collected Poems_ has Willie writing (of the Roman Empire) that it 'dropped the reigns of peace and war'."

At this point we veer into (inadvertent) typo vs. (advertent) thinko territory. Robert Coren (still on 8/25/04, a busy day in Eggcornia) distinguishes the two examples:

I think (on no authority other than I think makes sense) that these are two different things. "Take the reigns" (or anything that uses the plural, probably) looks to me like a simple misspelling/homophone confusion -- i.e., the horse-control sense is still there -- whereas I suspect "free reign" is in fact a perfect example of what MWDEU says.

and returns to the topic on 8/27/04:

I was thinking about this question again today when "reign" reared its head again, this time in a movie review in the _Boston Globe_, where a director was praised for "keeping an impressive reign on his young actors". I'm sorry, to me this is not the result of "reanalysis", conscious or unconscious; it's plumb carelessness or ignorance or both.

Now, nobody's denying that ignorance of a sort plays a role in eggcorn development. To get the whole thing going, you have to be unaware that (historically, and from the point of view of most English speakers) some expression involves one lexical item rather than another (homophonous with, or very close to, the first) and so requires one spelling rather than another. That allows you to identify lexical items in a way that makes sense to you, and to use the corresponding spelling. After that, you'll be inclined to go with your spelling and to disregard other people's spellings; after all, everybody knows that English spelling is weird and lots of people make mistakes!

The point is that you'll be consistent in your misspelling (and be inclined to defend it). If you were just pulling up homophone spellings on the spot, you'd show variability, possibly also indecision, and you'd be willing to correct the spelling.

As I said in my earlier posting, X > Y might be an inadvertent error (the orthographic counterpart to a Fay/Cutler malapropism) in some cases but an eggcorn (a classical malapropism) in others. On to one such example.

5. Marshall law on soc.motss. In my earlier posting, I cited martial law > marshall law, from the writing of David Fenton on soc.motss. On 8/25/04, Fenton posted to say that his error was inadvertent:

You use my "marshall law" example, to my embarrassment, because at a conscious level, I know perfectly well what's correct, but in quick typing, the brain grabbed a homonym that was incorrect. Some of the homonyms my brain has grabbed in similar situations have been far more ridiculously wrong (though I can't call to mind any particular ones), and I've caught many such during the typing/editing process.

Fair enough. This occurrence of marshall law gets kicked out of the eggcorn corpus. However, it looks like there are some real occurrences, though it will take some work to verify this. Googling on "marshall law" produces a huge number of hits, but most of them are irrelevant; there was a tv program called "Marshall Law" and there are some men named Marshall Law and Thurgood Marshall has law libraries and the like named after him, and so on. There do seem to be some people who think the expression involves the word "marshall", though.

6. hone > home and hypercorrection. On 8/25/04 Herb Stahlke approached the wise folk of ADS-L with a query:

Using "hone" for "home" in expressions like "home in on" has been common for at least two decades. The MWDEU's earliest citation is from George H. W. Bush in 1978, so it must have been around a good bit before that. Today, however, I came across my first instance of "home" for "hone", in the sense of "sharpen". Associated Press reporter Chris Duncan, in a story picked up by the Ball State Daily News, writes about Olympic beach volleyball winners Walsh and May:

"Questions about the pair's Olympic chances arose in June, shortly after May pulled an abdominal muscle. She spent most of the summer rehabbing while Walsh kept homing her game with other partners."

Is this a nonce instance, or are "home" and "hone" trading places?

Not, we eventually decided, trading places. It looks like the hone > home shift is a reversal of the home > hone, in contexts in which sharpening one's skills is relevant. So, a typo or a hypercorrection. Larry Horn Googled up a modest number of "homing my skills" examples and concluded that the shift is unlikely to be (always) a typo, so we're inclined to accept my proposal that it's a hypercorrection (note "error" piled on "error"), involving a writer who kept getting flak about hone in on and became suspicious of all occurrences of hone.

Meanwhile, back at the home > hone ranch, Horn came across the BBC's Skillwise Glossary, which attempts to explain the meaning of difficult words on the BBC website, including:

hone in


To focus on. (phrasal verb)

Example:The detectives honed in on the suspect.

And Doug Wilson said that he'd written to CNN in 2001, when this advice appeared in some kind of "improve your English" piece on their website. Looks like we're way past the eggcorn stage here.

7. Eggcorns and the state of education. Today, from a British ex-pat in South Africa (blogging under the name "Pom du Cap"), comes a list of all-star eggcorns: bated breath > baited breath, toe the line > tow the line, to the manner born > to the manor born, poring over a document > pouring over a document, exorcizing demons > exercising demons. (The pair metal/mettle is also in there, but the history is so convoluted that I scarcely know which spelling is to be taken as standard; for what it's worth, it's test your mettle for me, though the line-up of examples in e-mail to me suggests that it's test your metal for Pom du Cap.)

Along with the list there's a passing reference to "worsening education" in South Africa (and the U.K. and the U.S.), to which we might attribute the frequency of these misspellings. The unspoken assumption is that eggcorns are more frequent now than they used to be. I know of no evidence for this assertion and have plenty of reason to be dubious of all outcries that Standards Are Declining.

Still, we wouldn't want to deny that some eggcorns, like innovations in general, spread and eventually become dominant variants. Language changes.

Is this a Ride to Illiteracy, as many commentators on eggcorns (and other innovations) suggest? Well, if you insist that any failure to master the complete set of oddities of English spelling is evidence of illiteracy, then yes. Me, I'm inclined to think that such small-scale attempts to improve English spelling, to make it just a little bit more rational, are admirable, and I'm not distressed that in the process some information about the history of the language is no longer evident on the page. (I've gotten over my dismay that the eye in window is no longer visible.) In any case, who made spelling the God of Language?

8. Recent entries in the eggcorn steaks. Enough of this ranting; back to data.

8.1. wheel barrow > wheel barrel. Long discussion of this (very common) development on ADS-L, 8/11-12/04, with at least 11 contributors. Much of it was taken up with the relative contributions of (a) the existing, and common, word barrel and (b) the vocalization of [l] that would make barrel and barrow homophonous, or nearly so. In my opinion, the high point of the exchange came when Rachel Henderson posted the following:

By the 15 year-old son just walked in the room, so I asked him how to spell wheelbarrow. He spelled it correctly...and chuckled when I told him that I had to do a double-take on the word (it's been a long time since I had pondered the spelling), and he professed immediately that he thinks the spelling was changed from -barrel to -barrow at some point in recent (100) years because of southern accents...

8.2. weigh anchor > way anchor and other weigh/way examples, career/careen. Bill Findlay e-mailed me from the U.K. yesterday with:

When they left with invitations to visit their village on another island, (they only stay on this one for a couple of months a year to gather coconuts) we started the engine and proceeded to way anchor.

This would fit right along with the very common anchors aweigh! > anchors away!. Non-sailors are none too sure of their nautical vocabulary.

Findlay notes that under way > under weigh is acceptable in sailing circles, a usage sanctioned in some dictionaries (AHD4) but described as a "corruption" in others (the 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (Merriam-Webster), which nevertheless provides the estimable citations below).

An expedition was got under weigh from New York. (Thackeray)

The Athenians . . . hurried on board and with considerable difficulty got under weigh. (Jowett's translation of Thucydides).

For a more recent sighting of under weigh, here's an excerpt from "Getting Under Weigh" by Allen Brill, Open Source Politics 9/02/03:

A Navy veteran like Kerry knows that "getting under weigh" takes place when a ship's anchors are hoisted and she begins to move forward under sail or power. He and his supporters must hope that the Yorktown was only a backdrop for his campaign's official start and not a metaphor for its progress from this point forward -- for the tourist attraction Yorktown will never be "getting under weigh" again.

In addition, Findlay asked, "is 'career' > 'careen' an eggcorn? (I guess that car careering around the left turn might well have careened)". I replied that MWDEU has a long entry on "careen, career"; some eggorning was certainly involved historically, but now they seem simply to overlap significantly for most people. Findlay's impression was that in the U.K. careen is still a specialised boating term, except among kids who say 'like' and 'whatever'." Maybe so. Somebody want to check it out?

8.3. learning by rote > learning by route. Blogger Jonathan Mayhew reported this one on 8/25/04. Well, rote is an uncommon and specialized word, and learning by rote involves following a plan, that is, a (metaphorical) path. Mayhew notes that "When you google these phrases you do come up with cases in which the phrase is actually meant as 'route,' but sometimes it is clear that the writer meant 'learning by rote.' "

8.4. pedagogical > pedilogical. Michael Quinion noted this one on ADS-L yesterday, with 14 Google examples. Larry Horn suggested that this was a reshaping much like the famous nuclear > nucular, with a common terminal element pre-empting a rare one; Doug Wilson followed up with: "Quick search in MW3 shows 446 words ending in '-logical', but only 9 in '-gogical' (most of these new to me)."

8.5. pidgin English > pigeon English, gold standard > goal standard. These from John Broughton in e-mail today. The first is an old standard among eggcorniasts; Broughton notes 2,930 Google hits, which strikes me as tiny (but then I teach about pidgins and creoles sometimes, so I probably overestimate the number of occasions for people to talk about pidgin English).

The second was new to me, but isn't entirely surprising, given the likelihood of final t/d deletion after a consonant and before a word beginning with an obstruent. (I suppose it would be too much to hope for that the shift would go on for one more step, with vocalization of [l]: gold > goal > go.) Here's a cite supplied by Broughton: ' 'Platinum' [membership level] would become the goal standard for dealer participation in co-op's programs" (

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 27, 2004 01:47 PM