July 15, 2005

"Variant of, error for, or punning on"

As Chris Waigl pointed out, William Grimes' NYT review of Joan DeJean's "The Essence of Style" takes DeJean to task linguistically:

It's a little dismaying ... when a literary scholar writes "throws of passion" and "to the manor born." (That's "throes" and "manner.")

Was it DeJean or her copy editor? But in any case, it's interesting to see Grimes beating the zombie horse of manor vs. manner.

The OED says that "to the manor born" is

[variant of, error for, or (in sense 4(b)) punning on to the manner born s.v. MANNER n. 3b]

and gives 11 citations, including these:

1847 Princeton Rev. July 320 He intended..to return to Scotland and reside on his estate there as ‘though a native --and to the manor born’.
1916 Philos. Rev. 25 307 The modern man..is..one who looks upon Christianity not as an outsider, but as one to the manor born.

One would think that if the Princeton Review printed a phrase in 1847, and the Philosophical Review in 1916, and the phrase makes reasonable compositional sense in contemporary English, that it would be OK in 2005. However, this 150-year-old history of (reputed) linguistic bastardy means that a NYT reviewer still feels called on to twit a writer for using it.

With respect to the phrase Hobbesian choice, which is a "variant of, error for, or punning on" Hobson's choice, I suggested that

The key linguistic point is that Hobson's blocks Hobbesian here. Even if there is a valid and coherent reason for Anderson to see his choice as a "Hobbesian choice", he can't use that phrase without taking literate readers aback, and leading some of them to make fun of him. Unless, of course, he can convince them that the whole thing was a clever pun all along.

Apparently, the rule is "once an eggcorn, always an eggcorn". The only way to be redeemed is to take over. No one would complain now about a writer using the term "Jerusalem artichoke", which before 1620 or so was Girasóle Articiocco, or "sunflower artichoke" in Italian, because "Jerusalem artichoke" has completely displaced its rival. It's a doggy dog world, out there in the land of words.

[Note: the "Hobson's Choice" sign is a real photo of a real sign for a real shop (selling dried flowers in Hoosick, NY), according to Jim Hanas who took the picture.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 15, 2005 03:36 PM