March 19, 2005


Although the Eggcorn Hoard has been moving from the gleaming towers of Language Log Plaza to Chris Waigl's elegant new warehouse,  those of us here at the home office haven't lost interest in the phenomenon.  Indeed, eggcorniacs (Chris included) are forever faced with trying to judge what went on in people's minds during the first productions of some form-meaning pairing that diverges from the pairing previously current in the speech community.  Making these judgments can be a tough task.

Case in point: tidy-whitey, as in this cite from Mark Morford's column "Attention, Liberal Shoppers!" in the March-April 2005 Gay and Lesbian Review, p. 4:

Does it matter a whit that, say, Fruit of the Loom underwear gave nearly 100 percent of its corporate donations to tidy-whitey-wearing Republicans, nearly every one of whom I'm guessing wouldn't know appetizing undergarments from a flap of burlap and some string?

(I left  in the whole context partly because it amuses me.  But also because it's clear that Morford thinks tighty-whitey underwear -- white cotton briefs, usually for men -- is boring, while I've always thought of this label as denoting the kind of men's underwear made famous by Calvin Klein and aggressively purveyed by 2xist and other firms, the sort of thing that made it ok for the bodies of straight guys to be viewed as public objects of desire.  So tighty-whiteys (or -whities, if you wish) call up different connotations for Morford and me, apparently.  But this is Language Log, and here we're all about language, not the bodies of male models.)

I'm really pretty sure that the expression started life as tighty-whitey, a (modestly) clever rhyme that bundles together the tightness of briefs and the whiteness of their prototypical exemplars, two properties also combined in the prototypical men's t-shirt.

First complication: the expression occurs in both orders, whitey-tighty as well as the reverse.  Second complication: tidy instead of tighty.  Now, this makes sense: tighty is a novelty, tidy an established word, the two are pronounced (almost -- see below) the same, and tidy has a good meaning in this context, since the briefs in question might or might not be tight (and revealing), but they're certainly supposed to be neat and clean, that is, tidy.

The raw Google net hits are in favor of the t-word first and in favor of tighty over tidy as that t-word:

  t - w
  w - t

Things are much the same in the plural, though now there are two plurals for whitey: whities and whiteys, with the first preferred to the second:

  t - whities
  t - whiteys
  w - t's

There are (at least) two ways these arrays could come about.  If the expressions have been around for a while, then an original tidy could have been being reanalyzed as tighty by people who thought tightness was more significant than cleanliness, so that tighty eventually overtook tidy.  These things happen, and if you don't believe they do, you have another thing coming.

On the other hand, if the expressions are pretty recent, then this array reflects incipient reanalysis of original (and still dominant) tighty as tidy.  I don't (yet) know the history (it's not in the OED Online, or on the standard word origin sites), though I'm hoping to extract some of it from colleagues on ADS-L.  But I'm pretty sure that the expressions are relatively recent, so scenario #2 is the one to go with.

Of course, once the eminently sensible tidy-whitey is around, people will pick it up from writing like Morford's, and they will believe that this is in fact the "correct" form of the expression.  They'll treat tighty-whitey as a misinterpretation, in fact.  I'll bet Morford (or his copyeditor, or both) is such a person.

On the pronunciation front: tighty and tidy get to be (almost) the same in pronunciation in American English via intervocalic flapping, which plays a role in a large number of reinterpretations, and plain spelling errors too.  Interestingly, the two words aren't necessarily pronounced exactly the same, even if they both have an intervocalic flap.  Full neutralization at the word level turns out to be rarer than people used to think; often there's some cue as to the "real" nature of the neutralized segment.  For tighty vs. tidy, this would be in the length of the vowel preceding the flap -- shorter in tighty than in tidy, at least on the average.  (Morphological relatedness plays some role -- tighty is related to tight -- and so, probably, does the spelling system.  These aren't simple matters.)

What's really surprising, though, is that PRONOUNCING such distinctions can be divorced from PERCEIVING them.  Many years ago I served as a subject in an experiment run by Patricia Donegan, who told me that I made a made a (significant) distinction between the length of the first vowels in latter vs. ladder and similar pairs, but failed totally to perceive my own distinctions.  And I was scarcely alone.

So even if I'm sending out cues that will distinguish tighty and tidy, there's no guarantee that other people will get them.  The two words will "sound the same" (even if they don't quite sound the same, they're really very close); and one can be reinterpreted as the other.  

[Late-breaking (3/19/05) news from ADS-L: (a) Sam Clements's 14-year-old son volunteers that (some version of) tighty-whitey was in the movie Porky's (1982), though no one has verified this.  (b) Alice Faber reports a 1993 newsgroup use that glosses the expression unfavorably, in a reference to "the tighty-whitey (that means that their jockey underwear is too small, not anything racist, BTW) crybabies".  (c) Ben Zimmer gets things back to 1990 with a cite for tighty-whities ("think of boxers as opposed to the traditional Fruit-O-The-Loom/Hanes 'tighty-whities' ") and notes that Connie Eble's Slang and Sociability (1991) reports "tighty whities: men's briefs" in use on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.  And on 3/20/05 Tom Ace complains in e-mail that his "preferred variant spelling, tightie-whities, wasn't among those discussed in Language Log" and observes that he often sees the expression "used with a disparaging connotation, as if white briefs were the most uncool underwear choice going.  Tightie-whities have become the Rodney Dangerfield of underwear.  It wasn't that way when I was a kid."  Ah, fickle fashion!

On the spelling front, Ace's comments moved me to check out uses with tightie and (for completeness) tidie and tidey, also with whitie and whity.  This increased the tight- count by 7,886 and the tid- count by only 534.  There are an amazing number of spellings out there, though, in addition to the ones in the tables above: for tight- + whit-, tightie-whitey(s), tightie-whitie(s), tighty-whity, tightie-whity; for tid- + whit-, tidy-whitie, tidie-whitie(s), tidie-whitey(s), tidy-whity, tidey-whity, tidey-whitie(s), tidey-whitey(s); for whit- + tight-, whitie-tightie(s), whitie-tighty, whity-tightie(s), whity-tighty; for whit- + tid-, whitie-tidy, whitie-tidie(s), whity-tidy, whity-tidie(s), whity-tidey(s).  If there are any spellings with wit- instead of whit- or tit- instead of tight-, I don't want to hear about it.  The pattern is very clear, anyway: tight- way over tid-, and t - w way over w - t.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 19, 2005 06:20 PM