May 21, 2005

A 16th-century eggcorn

Language Hat points out the workings of coincidence in the origins of the verb press, in the sense "To engage (men) with earnest-money for service; to enlist by part-payment or ‘bounty’ in advance". I've given the gloss from the OED, and here is the OED's account of the etymology:

[Altered from or substituted for PREST v.2, by association with PRESS v.1: see PRESS-MONEY.
This result may have been facilitated by the fact that the pa. tense and pa. pple. prest could be the pa. tense and pple. either of prest v. (cf. cast, cost, thrust), or of press v. (cf. drest, past, tost), so that ‘he was prest’ could be understood either as ‘he was prested’ or ‘he was pressed’.]

This is a perfect example of the kind of process that creates an eggcorn: a word or phrase is given a new, etymologically incorrect morphological analysis, which is similar in sound and plausible in meaning. But the change prest → pressed went to completion by 1600 or so, and I didn't even know of the connection until I read Hat's post.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 21, 2005 05:18 PM