March 17, 2006

Spreading like wildlife

John Kroll drew my attention to a curious ecological metaphor in an article by Gene Sloan in USA Today, 3/16/2006, "Strings can be pulled on hotel-review sites":

Take the Westin New York at Times Square, which recently saw a surge in requests for corner rooms with king beds. The rooms have great views.

"I couldn't figure out how these guests knew to specifically request such a room until I saw it on tripadvisor," says Karen Colliton-Thomson, head of sales and marketing. "Word spread like wildlife on the site." [emphasis added]

The usual expression, of course, is "spread like wildfire". "Spread like wildlife" is an interesting metaphor, though. Wildlife certainly can spread uncontrollably, but the word wildlife seems to be more evocative of endangered species and habit destruction than of out-of-control pests like zebra mussels and cane toads. The substitution of "wildlife" for "wildfire" may just be a malapropism, but the substitution also makes its own kind of sense -- which malaprops mostly don't -- so that "spread like wildlife" shades off towards the eggcorn category. (The eggcorn database already has "spread like wildflowers"...)

And that old devil attributional abduction raises its head again here. Perhaps Ms. Colliton-Thomson actually said this, in which case Gene Sloan might not have noticed, or might have decided not to correct it. On the other hand, maybe she said "wildfire" and he transcribed "wildlife", either as a mental error or because he actually thinks that "spread like wildlife" is the standard phrase. It's also possible that an editor made the change, though this seems less likely. Finally, this could be some sort of spellcheckism; but in a brief experiment, I wasn't able to get MSWord to suggest "wildlife" for any likely mistypings of "wildfire".

John Kroll also pointed out that there are a hundred or so other hits for {"spread|spreading|spreads like wildlife"}, suggesting either that the psychological slip/misconstrual is a recurrent one, or else that there's a spellcheck stimulus out there that I didn't find.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 17, 2006 03:35 PM