November 03, 2005

"Hone in on" before "home in on"?

Google Print went live today, and so I'd like to be (among?) the first to use it for linguistic research. As a first try, I thought I'd check to see if I could find someone using "hone in on" before George Plimpton did it in 1965, and bingo:

"Right!" Dunk nodded. "By coming here we make contact with something that's been dramatically affected by the storms. Whether it will actually help us hone in on the perpetrators or not, I don't know. But it's worth a try." [emphasis added]

[Raymond Buckland, Cardinal's Sin, Llewellyn Worldwide, Jan. 1, 1951, ISBN 1567181023 (p. 113)]

The earliest citation that I've seen for "home in on" is 1956, so this raises the bizarre possibility that "hone in on" actually appeared first.

But no -- I've been misled by poor quality control at the source: a quick peek at the copyright page shows that Cardinal's Sin was actually published in 1996! It's not clear to me how it got entered in the Google Print database with a "Publication Date" of 1951 -- this is not a likely OCR or keyboarding error, and we can't blame it on MSWord's spellchecker.

I tried searching Google Print for "home in on", but the earliest examples available there so far are from 1976.

In fact, I still believe that "home in on" was a WWII-era coinage, and that "hone in on" quickly appeared as an eggcorn for it, but the evidence for this view is just as unclear as it was before.

[Update: well, Google Print was disappointing (though I look forward to great things), but Ben Zimmer checked ProQuest and came through with 1947 and 1944 citations for "home in on":

1947 Washington Post 23 Sep. 2/5 Approaching Brize Norton, the auto-pilot "homed" in on the selected radio compass station.
1944 Chicago Daily Tribune 7 Dec. 15/2 The Oahu radio was coming in strong. They had left the station on all night so we could "home in" on its frequency.


[Update #2: Ben Zimmer reports that

Looks like Google Print has a large number of books with a spurious pub date of 1951. Searching on that year will only return the first 50 matches (too bad!), but of those 50, most are not from 1951.

And Michael Cramer points out that lists "Llewellyn Publications (January 1, 1951)" as the Publisher for _Cardinal's Sin_. Google Print and appear to get their publication data from the same source -- or Google's been screen-scraping to populate its new service.

Probably there's a source in common, but I wonder what it is?]

[Update #3: Elizabeth Zwicky writes:

Google and Amazon are frequent partners (when you search on Amazon, you're using Google) so it's not surprising for them to have a common data source. However, in this case they probably bought the same bad data separately; Amazon's worst data comes direct from Books In Print, which is the major holder of this sort of data, and the obvious (perhaps only) place for Google to have gotten it. As far as I can tell, they have an effective monopoly and the sort of quality control that comes with it. Not that I'm bitter about having the editor listed as the sole author of my book, or anything.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 3, 2005 08:42 AM