January 20, 2005

Deep-seeded ignorance

According to a Jan. 19 Fox News story from Houston about how "[a]n application form to join a parochial schools group that was sent to Texas Islamic schools has created misunderstanding and anger between local Muslims and Christians",

Iesa Galloway, Houston Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (search) said the questionnaire was "rooted in deep-seeded ignorance of the religion of Islam and the Muslim people."

For most Americans, "deep-seeded" is pronounced exactly the same way as "deep-seated", due to (what linguists call) flapping and voicing of /t/ in words like seated, as in many other contexts (e.g. in fatter and rabbiting and at all, but not in attack). And in terms of the current ordinary-language meaning of the words involved, "deep-seeded ignorance" makes sense, while "deep-seated ignorance" doesn't. Ignorance can be planted deep and thus have deep metaphorical roots, but deep-seated ignorance would have to be ignorance cut with a lot of room in the crotch, or maybe ignorance sitting in a badly-designed armchair.

Still, Fox News needs better copy editors.

The established phrase is "deep-seated", which is listed in any good dictionary and has 590,000 Google hits, while "deep-seeded" is not listed in any dictionary (at least as far as I've checked), and has only 24,800 Google hists, so that the public vote is 96% for seated, 4% for seeded.

We've been accused recently of "let[ting] stodgy prescriptivism out into Language Log". In fact, I'm a linguistic libertarian -- I think you should speak and write as you please, but you should also understand what you're doing, and accept the consequences. In this case, if you write about "deep-seeded ignorance", you'll be using what most educated people will take to be a misconstrual of a long-established phrase.

The fact that roughly 4% of the population has the wrong idea about this phrase is a perfect example of the forces that lead to the formation of eggcorns. (Indeed, deep-seeded was mentioned here last fall as an example of this process.) The substitution sounds the same, and it means something plausible. Both similar sound and sensible meaning are essential -- no one is likely to make the mistake of writing "seated rolls" in place of "seeded rolls", or "deep-chaired ignorance" in place of "deep-seated ignorance".

The OED defines deep-seated as "Having its seat far beneath the surface". This would make sense for the meaning of seat given in the AHD as

6a. The place where something is located or based: The heart is the seat of the emotions.

but that sense of seat is essentially obsolete, except in fixed expressions like "deep-seated".

The idea of seeds being buried is much commoner these days, both literally and metaphorically, than the idea of seats having a similar property, as these Google counts suggest:

"buried seed(s)" 10,400 "seed(s) buried" 6,400
"buried seat(s)" 13 "seat(s) buried" 232

And some of those few buried seats are not real:

When he got the pardon, he looked at it and went back to his seat, buried his face in his hands and cried.

So it's odd to call the use of "deep-seeded" a mistake, since it combines ordinary words of English in a grammatically correct and semantically reasonable fashion. But a mistake it will usually be, at least in the view of most readers, because the existing phrase "deep-seated" gets in the way.

This is what John Dryden was getting at when he asked

Wouldst thou the seeds deep sown of mischief know,
And how the egg-corne doth emplanted grow?

OK, he didn't ask any such thing. But if he had, you'd know the answer.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 20, 2005 10:12 AM