February 02, 2005

I just can't phantom it

Amanda Seidl sent in a classic malapropism:

I was in NYC with a friend having breakfast at one of those diners where you sit at communal tables and this woman sitting next to us kept going on and on about how she could not phantom this or that. When we left I turned to my friend and said, "Isn't that an interesting way to use phantom? I never knew it meant anything like fathom." She said (of course), "you idiot! She meant fathom!" I've heard it a few times since then and google turns up quite a few more --maybe now that Phantom of the Opera (or if you prefer Fathom of the Opera) is now a movie we'll get even more.

Net search indeed turns up quite a few examples of this creative mis-hearing:

When I told people I only walked and never ran, they always had the same reaction: "I just can't phantom it."
I apologize but it angers me so much... I just can't phantom it. I should have read a bit more carefully before accusing.
... I can't phantom why she is allowed to endorse a product she can't use with hair that isn't hers.
However, I can't phantom why he would support a conspiracy theory spouting terrorist sympathizer like Kucinich.
Personally I can't phantom why anyone could take the US educational system seriously enough to want to study there.
New features are fine with me and should be with everyone, I like features - and I for one can't phantom why this discussion is even happening.
If image exports carry transparency (and I can't phantom why they wouldn't), you can make some hella-serious titles from this which can then be loaded into Imaginate or directly into your NLE.
Personally, I can't phantom going without a shower every morning.
I'm new to this site and I hope talking with others will help,because people who have never had phobias or fears with the likes of me/you,or people who have never had the extreme horror of a panic attack just can't phantom,or begin to comprehend what we have to deal with every day.
Dawn jumps at the sound and looks at the object, not able to phantom how it reached its current destination.
A very few children might be able to phantom the nuances of this book.
Actually, I am not able to phantom why a person wouldn't be grafted back to salvation.
He could talk in Latin, English, Portuguese, and Russian; was able to phantom great mysteries.
Yes, a ring and a certificate of marriage means a lot, a lot more than you will ever be able to phantom, my dear, until you have experienced wearing that shoe.
I startled up with surprise, eyes glazed as I tried to phantom what possibly could have gone wrong.
Sometime it's hard to phantom how search engines work.
I would expect a better judgement and leadership from the good Dr Beyene. I find it hard to phantom him being opposed to the idea of national reconciliation.
Twenty people joining together in the move to such a preposterous state of mind is hard to phantom-but this does happen.
The perpetuation of Ukraine's mafia state is a formula for disaster that could lead to protracted violence, possible fracturing not necessarily along the East-West fault-line, and scores of nightmarish scenarios difficult to phantom.

And many more. As is often the case with such errors, the original (fathom) doesn't make any modern-day sense. Phantom isn't a lot more transparent as a colorful way to say "understand", but maybe there is some association with things that you think you see but can't grasp concretely.

[Update: Keith Ivey points out that "phanthom" (8,150 whG), "fanthom" (9,590 whG), "phathom" (3,430), etc., may be relevant intermediate forms. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 2, 2005 07:20 AM