November 26, 2004

The Fall Eggcorn Crop

As fall (as we call autumn in North America) comes to an end -- in the U.S., the folk season of fall begins the day after Labor Day and ends the day after Thanksgiving, when millions stream to the stores to begin their orgy of Christmas shopping -- it's time for me to bring you all up to date on the eggcorn front; my last LL posting and Mark Liberman's were a while back (8/27 and 9/26, respectively). It's been a busy harvest season here by the computers in Palo Alto.

Two provisos: first, I can't guarantee that all 22 examples below are fresh ones. By this time, the Language Log eggcorn collection has become such a huge sprawling assortment of postings and links that I'm no longer sure what's in it (though I did try searching through the blog for most of the examples below).

And second, I can't always be sure that it's an eggcorn we're looking at. It might be a typo (teh), a spelling error (speach), a phonological reshaping (Poppa > Poppo, reported to me by Wilson Gray), a morphological innovation (see #12 below), or an ordinary classical malapropism, like palpated > palpitated, as in this letter to the New York Times 11/26, from Meredith Parsons McComb:

...and there's no other word than "groped" for having one's breast palpitated in public.

and in several web cites supplied by Google, for example:

All rams for sale are palpitated by my Vet for abnormalities in the winter after shearing. In young rams brucellosis is rare. (

One old favorite -- defuse > diffuse -- I will repeat here, however, because the latest report has the mark of the indubitable eggcorn, the eggcorner's defense of the innovative usage. The report came from George Markell on 11/20, about:

the phrase "diffuse the situation." As a newspaper copy editor, I saw that phrase many times, and of course I always changed the verb to "defuse." Once when the phrase was in the sports section, not my department, I walked over to the sports desk and pointed out the error, only to have an editor there defend the reporter's usage. His defense was rather vague and I don't really remember it, except that he seemed to equate diffusing with diluting, as if the implied metaphor were about a poison, not a bomb.

And now on to the fall inventory clearance, roughly in their chronological order of appearance in my world. I've been helped by e-mail correspondents (some of them anonymous here) and by posters to the American Dialect Society mailing list (ADS-L) and the Usenet newsgroup soc.motss; participants in both have been much taken by the eggcorn idea.

1. barbed wire > bobwire (via barb wire). On 9/6 a correspondent e-mailed to say:

When teaching about the settling of the American west, my high school history teacher made sure to to write the correct spelling for us of what a student had once referred to in an essay as "bobwire" [barbed wire].

On 9/11 I reported to ADS-L (in my quaint lower-cased fashion) on this one:

"bobwire" is an old familiar to me. i assume "barbed wire" > "barb wire", by the usual t/d participle deletion, and then "barb" > "bob" via a non-rhotic variety. but i was surprised not to see it in DARE. did i somehow miss it, or is it just too widespread to count as regional?

This would count as an eggcorn for anyone who thinks the verb bob (as in "bobbed hair") is part of bobwire. Or for anyone who's conjured up some story involving a guy named Bob. (Ordinary folks are fond of very specific stories about the origins of words and phrases, an inclination I labeled "narratophilia" on ADS-L a couple of years ago. A good story pretty much always trumps truth.)

2. know the score. Also on 9/6 another correspondent offered know the score as a possible hidden eggcorn, saying:

I'm not even sure if the original reference was to sports or music, although I think of it as the latter. In any case, I know I've heard the metaphor extended in ways which indicate that both meanings are assumed by different people.

My initial comment on ADS-L (9/11):

on "know the score", my correspondent noted that he'd seen it in contexts suggesting a sports origin and in contexts suggesting a musical origin (salman rushdie wrote a Guardian column in 1987 entitled "Songs Don't Know the Score"). so presumably one usage was the original and the other a reinterpretation (a "hidden eggcorn"). my correspondent favored the musical story, i'd always assumed it was a sports-based metaphor.

Many, many ADS-L postings followed, with passionate defenders on both sides. My belief in a sports origin hardened (and I have still more to say on the topic now), but Gerald Cohen's belief in a musical origin did too. If you want to know the score, you can following the discussion in the ADS-L archives.

3. anecdotal > antidotal. On 9/7 a correspondent offered:

... I have an eggcorn for you which I ran across on a mailing list I subscribe to: "antidotal evidence" instead of "anecdotal". Google gives a ratio of 1:240 on that one, and even corrects the former with "did you mean..."

Also check out MWDEU under antidote.

4. ones > once and once > ones. First, on 9/8 Ken Rudolph sent me the following, from a poster to

Sometimes, i wonder if pete sampras would attend the us open or even watch it on tv. or like lendl , have nothing to do with it at all.
many former pro tennis player said goodbye to the sport ones they retire. I wonder why ?

And on the heels of this, that same day Larry Horn forwarded some spam to ADS-L with the reverse substitution:

Satisfy YOURSELF & LOVED once (Take Viagra)

Hard to know just what's going on in these substitutions, which could be phonologically based (final /z/ being lightly voiced in English) or mere misspellings, rather than semantically based reinterpretations.

5. one and the same > one in the same. On 9/11 John McChesney-Young e-mailed about this one, suggesting that since it was very common I probably had lots of examples, but here was one from a northern California musicians' site (9/8), on which whistles were being discussed:

A: I love my Syn. Actually, both my whistle contributions to Bended Knee are on Syns. One is the aluminum, the other is an Ironwood with the wood mouthpiece.
B: Is that I. Ron Wood from the tour that was given away in the Jerry Freeman raffle?
A: One in the same. I also recorded The Wexford Carol with that whistle. It was something else.

6. Tagalog language > tag-along language. From a correspondent who shall remain anonymous, on 9/14:

In a linguistics class (which shall remain anonymous, at a school which shall remain anonymous) the instructor had made a reference to Tagalog. Later, a student raised her hand and inquired about "The tag-along language".

7. copywriter > copyrighter. On 9/14 Mark Mandel noted that during the know the score discussion on ADS-L, Sam Clements had written:

Obviously this isn't a clearcut useage in a figurative sense, but it shows how an ad copyrighter used the phrase--keeping score, as if in a game.

Mandel corrected:

"copywriter". A very easy mistake to make, for fairly obvious reasons. Conversely, "copyright" is often misspelled as "copywrite" and its past participle written as "copywritten".

8. sealed > ceiled. On 9/15 a correspondent pointed me to the satire site Something Awful, where the following is quoted:

Chief Security Officer Davies believes there may be taco shells left over from the previous Ares Station crew in the Area 3 Dining Room Supply Hall, which was melted shut by the previously hostile Electron Catalyst Dephazer.
... DynaMars Corporation wishes to thank Chief Security Officer Davies and his officers for their valiant fight against a ceiled door.

9. underlying > underlining. On 9/17 Ron Hardin reported this one to the newsgroup sci.lang:

As we celebrate the 217th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, it's easy to forget how revolutionary its underlining principles really were. (

10. last ditch > last stitch. On 9/21 Orin Hargraves noted (on ADS-L) the following item that he'd found in a blog:

I thought maybe it was the types of vibrators I was buying, so I decided as a last stitch effort to try something new.

Google provides a couple of hundred web hits for this one.

11. heap scorn > heave scorn. On 9/21 Michael Palmer offered the following eggcorn on soc.motss (suggesting that heap scorn might involve derision applied from above, while heave scorn would supply derision from below):

Whenever he [Stanley J. Kunitz, editor of the Wilson Bulletin for Librarians, 1928-1943] had an opportunity, he heaved scorn on the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain. (David A. Lincove, "Propaganda and the American public library from the 1930s to the eve of World War II," RQ 33, no. 4 (Summer 1994), 510ff.)

Google supplies at least one further web example:

.. adoring him as the hero who made the first trans-Atlantic flight; grieving for him when his son was kidnapped and found dead; and heaved scorn on him for his ... (

12. supposedly > supposably. On 9/23 Wilson Gray asked me on ADS-L if I had supposably, which he said was very common in Black English, in my files. My reply:

i didn't have it in my files, but it turns out to be in paul brians's inventory of common errors in english. many google hits, many of them pretty clearly not from BE. there's even a sort of famous cite from Friends:
Chandler: What if I never find someone? Or worse, what if I've found her, but I dumped her because she pronounced it 'supposably?'.

In the succeeding days our attention turned to attacks on and defenses of, first, supposably and, then, assumably (for presumably), with side excursions to, omigod, that old demon hopefully and also seasonable/seasonal and seasonably/seasonally. Check out the ADS-L archives if you're interested in the twists and turns of this discussion.

In any case, it's not clear that eggcorning, rather than innovative uses of English derivational morphology, is going on here.

13. in earnest > in Ernest. In the 9/27 Palo Alto Daily News, p. A5, reporter Jean Whitney tells us about how "Couple goes from renting to owning":

Eventually, after about three months of looking online at real estate, the pair began in Ernest to house hunt on weekends.

Google has a few hundred hits for began in ernest (lower case), but these could be simple misspellings, not an invocation of some fabled Ernest.

14. mother lode > motherload. On 10/1 Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky relayed the following, from e-mail to her from a friend:

I registered for a few things. (After talking to R... it seems like we will indeed recover the motherload of all baby objects from her garage, leaving us not needing much stuff.)

Google provides similar examples with load 'a lot':

The motherload of cb info,... (
I found the Moso motherload! ... I'ma happy man. ( load/bamboo/msg090300239648.html)

Plus a few cites with motherload reinterpreted as 'a mother of a load, a huge load':

Protect your computer from a motherload of viruses, spyware Web site, company offer free ways to protect PC... ( stories/20040711/localnews/821113.html)

15. smarmy > swarmy. Also on 10/1, Scott Safier posted to soc.motss:

Kerry won because the media disobeyed the rules and showed their reactions while the other person was talking. Bush's body language made him look swarmy. People will forget content -- they won't forget Bush looking hunched over and the scowling faces when Kerry criticized him.

He was corrected on the newsgroup, and when I queried him about the word he replied that he had "been mispronouncing the word for eons". For non-linguists, "mispronunciation" covers a lot of territory -- including, in this case, the possibility that Safier thought that swarms were somehow involved in the word.

16. fare > fair. From the cartoon "Moonbeam in the 21st Century", by David Sporrone, "Shoeless pay source", reprinted in the 10/04 Funny Times, p. 17:

Woman: Ya wonder how a guy like Shoeless Joe Jackson would fair in today's modern major leagues?

I'm assuming some notion of fairness is involved here.

The answer to the question, by the way, is: "not well... no shoe contracts."

17. conscious decision > conscience decision. On 11/8 this came by on a (closed) mailing list I'm on:

I was frightened at first due to the 2 trips to the emergency room in the last year. The last time for emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. Everything is fine this time around, but I did have to make the conscience decision to let myself be happy about it and let go of the fear.

Phonological? Possibly, but back in my files there's a pile of examples of conscience raising where I, at least, would have used consciousness raising.

18. by-election > bi-election. On 11/12 Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky sent this one on from e-mail to her, about Australian electoral politics:

Note that when a politician leaves (or gets dismissed), there's a bi-election for that seat rather than having someone appoint a new person (or one of their friends/family).

Google shows ca. 4,160 web hits for bi-election. Well, it's an extra election.

19. infest > infect. On 11/18 Wilson Gray, his attention caught by a discussion of cat/pet/animal hoarding, reported this find to ADS-L:

A newsreader, "And, in local news, a house infected with rats!"

The story was about a lonely old lady who hoarded wild rats. Infect seems suitably vivid in this context.

20. over the bow > over the bough. Meanwhile, over on soc.motss Robert Coren offered this wonderful example on 11/20:

From Jayson Stark's column on (at ):
"This is, basically, a shot over the bough," the agent said, "which clearly indicates that the Players Association is onto MLB's game."
I don't know whether Stark or some editor is responsible for this, but I'm trying to imagine what on earth whoever it was thinks the phrase means.
Incidentally, although it would be way tedious to explain what it's about, it's my opinion that even if the agent said "bow" he was using the phrase incorrectly: the context shows that what's being referred to is essentially a defensive action by MLB, not an aggressive one by the Players Association.

21. imperial > empirical. On 11/20 John McChesney-Young passed on a reference on the Classics-L mailing list to a capsule review of the movie "Alexander" in the NYT:

The film follows the young king as he leads his forces on a bloody empirical conquest across the known world,

Morphological reshaping? Or just a spellchecker run amok?

22. ceanothus > cyanothus. If you look carefully at Geoff Pullum's LL posting on the disastrous lack of words for 'robin' in Arctic languages, you'll see that for the photo of the lovely ceanothus plant (common names wild lilac, California lilac -- it actually is a California native plant), the source file is labeled cyanothus. Google turns up five or so occurrences of this spelling. Hey, cyan is a blue hue, and ceanothus has beautiful blue flowers, so it makes sense. I'm only surprised there weren't more hits.

zwicky at-sign csli dot stanford dot edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 26, 2004 07:06 PM