January 22, 2005

Don't take your language for granite

In response to my post on deep-seeded, Fernando Pereira wrote:

My daughter brought up "take it for granite" when I showed her your "deep-seeded" piece. A quick Googling shows that the eggcorn occurs for real, but most top links are uses of the eggcorn as a pun, as in the names of kitchen counter suppliers, B&Bs, and popular geology outings.

There are indeed plenty of puns, like the climbing route named "Taken for Granite" on Stone Mountain, NC, or the slogan of GraniTech Inc. ("Your Marble and Granite Source"): "Take Us For Granite". And there are also some real examples out there:

(link) He started taking me for granite so I moved and kind of wanted to do my own thing.
(link) I put myself out there and let everyone have a piece of me. I’m finally just not going to let people take advantage of me and take me for granite anymore. I’m done trying to be the friend everyone needs when I’m left with nothing.
(link) Sometimes, he will need his space, but don't worry... He'll always make time for you and even when you're not around, you'll be in his thoughts. You will find that he isn't like any other guy that you have met, so please don't take him for granite. When it comes to his money, don't take advantage of that, He will be so unselfish with it, because that is the way he is.
(link) Never in his life would he think to see how many people really appreciated Fran. It showed him how much of a bloody cad he was for taking her for granite.
(link) Fight the deception of forgetting. When we forget what others have done we will take them for granite. When we forget what God has already done we will begin to weaken His presence and He will weaken our position.
(link) I do not remember ever hearing you say you had the faith and confidence in your sons, that they would behave themselves, and be honest and dependable. But as far back as I can remember I felt you expected as much of me, and took it for granite that I would.

This one is not as widespread as "deep-seeded", I think, because the sound is not so commonly the same, and the meaning doesn't fit quite so well.

You might think that the sound correspondence "granted" = "granite" is only approximate, but at least for some English speakers it can be exact.

There are two independent steps. The first and commoner one is for /'VntV/ (i.e. /nt/ when preceded by a stressed vowel and followed by an unstressed one) to weaken to [n]. A common example is the pronunciation of twenty as if it were spelled "twenny", or center as if it were spelled "senner". This sort of thing is often deprecated as sloppy speaking, but in fact most Americans do it all the time. I certainly do. If you can find an American speaker who never reduces /nt/ to [n] in such words, you've either found an extraordinarily fussy speaker, or one of the few Americans speaking a dialect that weakens /t/ in a different way in these contexts, e.g. to something like [ts].

The other step in making granted sound exactly the same as granite is to devoice the final /d/. I don't know much about the (phonological or sociolinguistic) distribution of this phenomenon -- I'll look into it and report back what I find. The pattern has clearly been around for a long time -- the OED explains that

The Sc. form of -ed is -it, with which cf. such early ME. forms as i-nempnet named, i-crunet crowned ...

I've heard some contemporary speakers use -it -- perhaps from this historical source, though final devoicing is a common sound change anyhow -- in words like patted or wanted (where the /nt/ weakening also applies, so that the result is something like [ˈwɔ.nɪt]). For them, granted would be exactly "granite". Of course, exact equivalence of sound isn't required for an eggcorn to be created, but it helps; and granted is exactly granite only for a minority of speakers.

As for the dimension of meaning, I suppose that to take someone for granite is to treat them like a worthless inanimate object, a commonplace rock with no human value and no human feelings. This is a plausible substitute for some of the "value too lightly" senses of "take for granted". And perhaps to take something for granite could also mean to consider it the factual bedrock on which an edifice of supposition is built, which could work for the "assume as true" sense:

[American Heritage dictionary]:
1. To consider as true, real, or forthcoming; anticipate correctly.
2. To underestimate the value of: a publisher who took the editors for granted.

[Merriam Webster's Unabridged]:
1 : to assume as true, accurate, real, unquestionable, or to be expected *took it for granted that he would not get into trouble with the licensing authorities* *taken for granted that words have definite meanings— T.S.Eliot*
2 : to pay inadequate attention to or value too lightly (as a possession, right, or privilege) *inclined to take one's liberties for granted if they are never challenged* *began to take her husband for granted until he threatened to leave her*

Still, taking for granite is not quite right here. Why "granite", for example? It's a bit too specific for an idiomatic prototype. We talk about a heart of stone, not a heart of chert; we founder on the rock of human nature, not on the basaltic outcropping of selfishness; we build on the bedrock of solid fact, not on the gneiss dome of accepted reality. And the relevant meaning of granted is still very much alive (unlike the relevant meaning of seated): "I grant that...", "granted that ...", "even if we grant that ..."

So it's not surprising that "take for granite" is spreading much more slowly in the linguistic meme pool than "deep-seeded" is.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 22, 2005 08:17 AM