September 06, 2004

Postcards from eggcornea

Here in Eggcornea we're riding a wave of mail set in motion by earlier LL postings, here and there. The mail has brought us some old standards, the darlings of the usage dictionaries; some hidden eggcorns; a cross-language eggcorn almost as good as pre-Madonna; and a crop of nominees for the Internet Eggcorn Galleria. And we've been moved to muse about the line between eggcorns and creative spellings, plain ol' malaprops, and syntactic blends; to examine the (very close) connection between eggcorns and puns; and to defend eggcorns against the criticism that they erase history.

1. Old standards. The LL postings sparked discussion on the newsgroup soc.motss (8/27-28), including queries about born/borne, tack/tact, and eminent/imminent (type 2 diabetes mellitus is "imminently controllable"). These are old standards, most of which are covered (to some extent) in MWDEU, Garner, Paul Brians's Common Errors in English, and similar compendia.

It would be worth some trouble to assemble the "confusions" in these compendia. This would take some judgment, since not all of the linked items are eggcorns. Some are just very common (inadvertent) misspellings or Fay/Cutler malapropisms, with no reanalytic motive at all. Some are words of very similar, overlapping, meaning (partly/partially) that the compendia are trying to subtly discriminate (often in inventive ways).

2. Hidden eggcorns. Three candidates have come to my attention.

2.1. the die is cast. Keith Ivey wrote on 8/28 to say:

When I first heard the phrase "the die is cast", I thought it meant that a mold for stamping out coins (for example) had already been produced from molten metal and thus set and could not be changed. I later learned that it referred to throwing a gaming cube. Apparently I'm not alone in having had this misapprehension.

Ivey unearthed a page with a couple of paragraphs "correcting"the gaming-cube interpretation:

Perhaps you have heard the phrase 'the die is cast' or 'the die has been cast'. This has nothing to do with gambling or dice; instead, it refers to a mold (die) which has been cast (made).

Once the mold is made, everything which comes from it, will have the shape of the mold. 'The die is cast' thus states that a pattern has been laid down, and thus subsequent events will conform to the pattern. This phrase lends itself to assumptions about the future being predictable, once patterns are seen in the present.

See also the pages here and here. Lots of people have reanalyzed the die related to dice as die 'mold', and some of them are entirely sure they're right.

2.2. passion play, the passion of the Christ. Also on 8/28 -- a big day in Eggcornea -- Nikita Ayzikovsky wrote to remind me that many people have probably reanalyzed passion in these expressions, from 'suffering' to 'intense feeling'.

2.3. beg an answer/solution. More recently, I came across the following in a review of the tv series "Hawaii" by Alessandra Stanley, in the New York Times of 9/1/04, p. B6, and reported on it in ADS-L:

There are no female detectives at headquarters, just a sultry young policewoman who aspires to be one. She is the lust object for two young investigators, Their silent, narrow-eyed stare contests are so smoldering that they almost beg Sergio Leone theme music.

The story starts with the technical idiom beg the question. The alt.english.usage faq page describes the beginning of the development:

Many people unaware of the technical meaning of "to beg the question" in logic use it in one of two looser senses. The first of these, "to evade the question, to duck the issue", is attested since 1860 (WDEU). The second, "to invite the obvious question, (with an inanimate subject) to raise the question", is now the most commonly heard use of the phrase, although we have found no mention of it prior to The Oxford Guide to English Usage, 1st edition (1983), and it is not yet in most dictionaries.

What's going on here is a reanalysis of the technical verb beg as a closer and closer approximation to the ordinary verb beg (for) 'ask for'. A quick Google search shows that beg the issue has developed roughly the same range of meanings as beg the question. Beg with some other objects, like the possibility, seems to have only the 'invite' sense: "Finally, of course, a weak dollar begs the possibility of higher interest rates. Mr. Greenspan's refusal..." (

The end development is beg + object as straightforwardly involving the ordinary verb beg, and we get things like beg an answer and beg a solution: "Trinitarian theology begs an answer to the question: 'What on earth happened to the Holy Spirit?'. Who is the Holy Spirit?" (; "Unfortunately, there is one issue that still begs a solution, and provides a challenge to creating a mutually acceptable situation." ( And then we're in a position to beg 'beg for' just about anything, even Sergio Leone music. Well, some people are.

3. Cross-language eggcorns. We saw the marvelous pre-Madonna in my last posting. Now David Fenton, in soc.motss (on, yes, 8/28), recalls the pre-fix menu he encountered at a D.C. restaurant a few years ago. Well, the cost is fixed ahead of time, right? Slightly Frenchier is pre-fixe: "Dinner : $20 Weekly Pre-Fixe. For this week of August 30th-September 5th, 2004. ... With Pre-fixe Menu Only... Solano Grill & Bar, Inc." (

4. New candidates. Here are some fresh eggcorn candidates. Previous caveats and warnings still apply.

4.1. expatriate > ex-patriot. Margaret Marks suggested (on 8/28!) that Language Log must already have mentioned this one. Apparently not. Google brings up several sites, some offering medical insurance to expatriots or ex-patriots. There's even an site.

4.2. nip in the bud > nip in the butt. Also on 8/28, Patrick Linehan, who works in a hospital Emergency Depatment, wrote to tell me about a patient who came in with a sore throat of only one day's duration. "She said she came in so soon because she wanted to 'nip it in the butt'."

4.3. god awful > god offal. Also from Nikita Ayzikovsky on National Eggcorn Day (8/28, mark your calendars): god offal. The rare offal for the common awful is something of a surprise, and might belong in the "creative spelling" category (below). But there are a fair number of examples from Google. For instance, the complaining consumer: "i just slapped on a god offal french accent, called the pringles company, told them that my cheesy pringles werent cheesy enough, and they are sending me..." ( And the vexed climber: "I've been at this belay station for over an hour. It's the most god offal uncomfortable belay I've ever been at. A cross between hanging and sitting..." (

4.4. behind the throne > behind the thrown. Earlier, I reported on unthone > unthrown, which I took to be mere creative spelling. But now John McChesney-Young (8/31) writes to offer a letter his father wrote to the editor of the on-line (subscription) publication by "In your Basic Global Intelligence Brief for 31 August, the mention of 'Jiang's plan to remain behind the thrown.' makes me wonder if this is somehow related to being behind the curve, if a curve ball has been throne!"

McChesney-Young goes to report that he's "surprised how common it turns out to be: Google web finds 'behind the thrown' in about 675 pages (in Usenet about 276 postings) and 'power behind the thrown' at 81 unique web hits (Usenet 39 unique postings). The former phrase is sometimes used legitimately, e.g., 'Keep the carried ball BEHIND the thrown ball'."

4.5. be garbled > be gargled. On 9/1, "" posted to soc.motss to complain: "What's with the gargled sounds on cfrb. For the last few weeks now, ads, little tunes, often sound gargled." David Fenton cried, "EGGCORN ALERT!!!!" On 9/3, Jed Davis followed up: "I actually read through the OP, and it seems to be taking issue with certain processed sound artifacts that, apparently, remind one of the sound of a person gargling. Thus, gargled sound." Meanwhile, a bunch of other Google hits for "gargled sound" (only a few of them about phonetics) and one for "sound was gargled" suggest that the expression has some currency, at least for sounds. (No hits on "message was gargled".)

Well, this is a tricky one. It depends on whether users of "gargled" distinguish it from "garbled", or whether some use it to cover the territory that the rest of us use "garbled" for.

4.6. pinecone > pinecomb. And now, on 9/5, the helpful John McChesney-Young passes on a posting to STUMPERS-L from Diane Rainaud:

While reading a book just now my daughter came across the expression "..the pinecomb doesn't fall far from the tree." She was surprised as she had always thought the "thing" that grows on a pine tree was a pinecone. Our dictionary does not include the word "pinecomb", and Googling turns up some odd references such as this caption under a picture in a medical article:

"Cystogram showing the typical appearance of a spastic neurogenic bladder. The findings are sometimes referred to as the "pinecomb" or "Christmas tree" appearance."

Can anyone shed any light on the word pinecomb?

Looks like an eggcorn to McChesney-Young and me.

5. Creative spelling. Some time back (on 7/6/04), Mark Liberman posted here about eggcorns that were "just non-standard spellings". Mark's first example was whittle > widdle. These, I think, don't deserve to be called eggcorns at all; there's no shift in the identification of parts of expressions.

Back on National Eggcorn Day (8/28), Anthony Jukes pointed me to a truly wonderful cross-language respelling, voilá > walaa, many many examples of which can be found by googling on "and walaa". For instance: "You can pad the pipe to your liking (I use very thin but dense foam & duct tape, a friend uses foam then covers it with hemp rope) and walaa!" ( forums/search/topic/14816-1.html).

Ok, not an eggcorn. But delightful.

6. Plain ol' malaprops. Recall that eggcorns are reanalytic (classical) malapropisms. There are, of course, plenty of plain 'ol malaprops around.

6.1. epidemic > diagrammatic. Back on NED (8/28), Mark Mandel posted to ADS-L about a Nigerian scam spam letter he'd received, which began:

I am the above named person from Ghana. I am married to Dr Alfred Williams who worked with Ghanaian embassy in South Africa for nine years before he died in the year 2002.We were married for eleven years without a child. He died after an epigrammatic illness that lasted for only four days. Before his death we were both Christians.

Over the next day or two, the ADS-Lers wrestled with what epigrammatic was intended to convey. The consensus was epidemic, which is phonologically rather distant, but then classical malapropisms sometimes range pretty far phonologically from their targets; a minority report from Doug Wilson came down for brief, which would be a semantic error rather than a classical malapropism. The discussion was taken to a new level by Africanist Herb Stahlke, on NED+1:

I suspect this may have been more than just the normal malaprop. In the Nigerian English of the sort who seem to send the emails there is a strong tendency towards what they sometimes call "fine talk", using the biggest, most learned sounding words they can find whether they make sense or not. It's the sound and overall impression they are going for. But you have to hear it from within Nigerian culture to appreciate it. There's a 1998 novel by Karen King-Aribisala titled Kicking Tongues, Canterbury Tales transplanted to Nigeria, that has some truly artful examples of this.

6.2. remnants > ruminants. Still on NED and on ADS-L, Dan Goodman noted that "A recent story at began with the narrator shaking off the last ruminants of sleep." These are presumably the sheep that the narrator counted to get to sleep in the first place and now must be expelled.

7. Syntactic blends vs. lexical intrusions. Eggcorns could be viewed as "lexical intrusions", in which one element (morpheme, lexeme, word) is substituted for another in an attempt to have a larger expression "make more sense". On occasion, this sort of substitution can look rather like a syntactic blend (a topic I want to say more about soon). A few examples:

7.1. hunker down > bunker down. Last autumn, ADS-L spent some time on the expression bunker down. It started with a example offered by Seán Fitzpatrick on 10/10/03:

From "Jonestown for Democrats: Liberals follow Gray into the big nowhere", by Marc Cooper in the LA Weekly (emphasis added):

As the insurgency swelled, the best that liberal activists could do was plug their ears, cover their eyes and rather mindlessly repeat that this all was some sinister plot linked to Florida, Texas, Bush, the Carlyle Group, Enron, and Skull and Bones. By BUNKERING DOWN with the discredited and justly scorned Gray Davis, they wound up defending an indefensible status quo against a surging wave of popular disgust.

"Hunker down" mixed up with some such phrase as "go into the bunker with".

Immediately, Gerald Cohen, who has collected enormous numbers of putative syntactic blends (Cohen, Gerald Leonard. 1987. Syntactic blends in English parole. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.) and is inclined to see them everywhere, firmly rejected this offering: " 'Bunker down' is not a blend. It's merely 'hunker down' with the intrusion of 'bunker' (based both on phonetic similarity and the idea of hunkering down in a bunker." And Clai Rice (10/13/03) offered up a collection of Google hits for bunker down, suggesting that this is (sometimes) not an inadvertent slip, but an eggcorn.

7.2. poke fun at > pick fun at. On NED+1, ADS-Ler Wilson Gray reported on pick fun at, which Larry Horn suggested might be a blend of poke fun at and pick on. But it could just be an "improvement" of poke by pick, that is, an eggcorn.

7.3. slugfest > slangfest. Right after this, on NED+2, Peter McGraw logged the following: "In a column about the Swift Boat attack ads and Kerry's response to them, David Gergen says: 'A quarter-century ago, they [the Swift Boat Veterans' allegations] would have faded away without much discussion. But in an age of slangfests on radio and cable news, it was inevitable that conservative hosts would blow up the story' (The Oregonian, 8/30/04)." McGraw, David Barnhart, and Grant Barrett googled up further examples. It would be possible to see slangfest as a blend of the amply attested slugfest and the somewhat more uncommon slanging match. Or, of course, slang could just be an improvement on slug, indicating that language was the medium of attack, and not fists.

8. A vexed note. I try to keep good files on the various kinds of "mistakes", inadvertent and not, phonological or semantic or morphological or syntactic, etc. etc. I have separate files for spelling errors, for eggcorns, for other classical malapropisms, for blends of various sorts, and so on. Most of them now have files appended that say, rather desperately, "see also..." Lord knows how I'd count any of this.

9. The pun connection. Just before the dawn of NED (on 8/27), Emily Bender mailed to remind me about the eggcorn-pun connection. Another way to look at eggcorns is as unintentional puns. Both puns and eggcorns turn on a doubleness of meaning for identical (or very similar) form. Bender's e-mail was actually about a kind of written pun in Japanese (which I'm not competent to write about, though I invite Bill Poser to say something about it), but her general point is an important one, I think.

In both cases, there are imperfect matches (eggcorn home > hone, pun "With fronds like these, who needs anemones?"), perfect phonological matches distinguished in spelling (most eggcorns and puns), and completely perfect matches (hidden eggcorns, puns like those below, from Geoff Tibballs (ed.), The mammoth book of humor (NY: Carroll & Graf, 2000)), in which both pronunciation and spelling are identical.

[5180] What did the farmer say to the goat who wouldn't reproduce? -- You must be kidding.

[5182] [with reference to Quasimodo] ... "I'm not sure of his name," said the woman, "but his face rings a bell."

[5183] What did one eye say to the other? -- Between you and me there's something that smells.

[5185] What do you call a witch who verfies her incantations? -- A spell checker.

[5187] What do you call Santa's helpers? -- Subordinate Clauses.

When the eggcorn topic hit soc.motss recently, it set off a wave of punning (not that this group needs encouragement to pun). The rain/reign/rein example immediately produced references to Prince's "Purple Reign" (and his "Purple Rein") and quotations like "The reign in Spain is mainly on the plain" and "Who'll Stop the Reign?" See, it's contagious: walaa!

10. The loss of history. I'm still mulling over the visceral objection to eggcorns that many people have, in particular the objection that things like free reign and hone in on, not to mention pre-fix and the venerable chaise lounge, are appalling because, in the ignorance of the history of these expressions, we erase that history by reshaping them.

Well, from the point of view of ordinary language users, history doesn't count for much. We mostly have no way of ascertaining that history, and when we know it, it's a kind of charming footnote: the important thing is how the pronunciations, meanings, and uses of expressions are linked. If you happen to know that some expressions arise from the technical vocabulary, metaphors, and metonymies of, say, card playing, sailing, baseball, fashion, horseback riding, the law courts, or music, that might deepen your appreciation of these expressions, and you might exploit those associations in your speaking or writing (if you know your audience), but this is lagniappe. Almost all of these figures are lost entirely or function subliminally.

One of the great lessons for me as a participant in ADS-L over the years has been the discovery of just how little even the experts know about the history of idiomatic and formulaic expressions, and how tremendously difficult these investigations are. We can speculate, and produce suggestive citations, but just an enormous amount of history is hazy, and some of it is probably unknowable. Even worse, things that "lots of people know" are just false; go back and look at the die is cast above. Mythetymologies abound.

It's not reasonable to ask ordinary people to be historians. Hell, it's hard enough for the specialists. I can't see why we should be insisting that ordinary people should be philologists. Let them find their own poetry; they're pretty good at it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 6, 2004 02:15 AM