December 02, 2004

Folk etymologies and eggcorns in Riddley Walker

A couple of months ago, Ray Girvan introduced the term eggcorn to the collaborative Riddley Walker annotation site that Eli Bishop maintains:

(67:31) "I bes put the red cord strait"
Put the record straight. This is a particularly good example of Hoban's deftness at puns that accurately reflect how idioms really change: someone mis-hears a phrase in a way that seems to make a little more sense than the real phrase, after the original meaning has become unclear. (That is, even if you have no idea what the "red cord" might be, it's easy to imagine pulling a cord straight; and in Riddley's world, rope is a lot more common than written records.) An example of a phrase that has changed in a similar way is "spitting image," which used to be "spit and image."

This is referred to as folk etymology if it becomes widespread; for newer instances that have not yet passed the test of time, linguist Geoff Pullum has coined the term eggcorn. [RG]

In the world of Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker, it's not clear which phrasal re-analyses like "put the red cord strait" are part of everyone's English, and which are sporadic or particular to the 12-year-old narrator.

Ray posted a terrific list of real-world examples of folk etymologies on his Apothecary's Drawer Weblog: place names ("Richborough" for Rutupiae), ship nicknames ("Billy Ruffian" for Bellerophon), soldiers' slang ("Alleyman" for Allemagne), public-house names ("Bag o' Nails" for Bacchanals), and so on.

As Dave Awl put it, Riddley Walker

[...] is set in an unspecified, post-apocalyptic era in the future, when dogs have become humanity's enemies, and history is a rubble of allegory. It's told in a language that recalls the "smashed mess of mottage" of Finnegan's Wake [...]

although unlike Finnegans Wake, Riddley Walker won the John W. Campbell Award. In addition to maintaining a Russell Hoban site called The Head of Orpheus, Dave Awl is a former member of the Neo-Futurists, who are responsible for one of my favorite pieces of speech act analysis synthesis.

Among the many other folk etymologies (or eggcorns) in Riddley Walker are arper sitting, axel rating, comping station, deacon terminations, farring seakert tryer, inner acting, inner G, pry mincer, some poasyum, and spare the mending. There are also blends like Plomercy (from diplomacy and mercy), some new ideophones like arga warga, some phonological reanalyses like "nindicator", and some evocative re-spellings like "addom" and "Chaynjis".

I usually find tricksome ways of writing English troublesome. For example, I had a hard time making it through Iain Banks' Feersum Endjin, though I like his other works a great deal. And I've never been able to do more than dip here and there into Finnegans Wake. However, Riddley Walker is an exception, where the wordplay drew me into the story rather than distracting me from it. Reminded by Ray's post, I recently read it again, and enjoyed it even more than I did when it first came out. If you haven't read it, you should.

[By the way, the 9/26/2004 Language Log post that Ray cites claims that {" eggcorn|eggcorns"} gets 3,680 hits on Google", as indeed it did when I wrote it. But when I click on the link now, I only get 2,230. Whether this is because some cache of eggcorn-rich pages has meanwhile drifted off the web, or because of some change in Google's algorithms, I don't know.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 2, 2004 11:15 AM