May 13, 2007

T(w)angy eggcorns from Globe readers

Last month Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe issued an appeal for readers to send in their favorite eggcorns, "those verbal misunderstandings that produce erroneous yet logical new terms," as Freeman describes them. In today's column she reports on the finest of her correspondents' eggcornological jewels (or are they pus jewels?).

Many gleanings will already be familiar to devotees of Language Log and the Eggcorn Database, such as butt naked, nip in the butt, flush out (the details), and heart-rendering. Others are newly observed, such as the reader who sent in "a twangy taste." As Freeman notes, tang (usually referring to sharp flavor) and twang (usually referring to a sharp sound, such as a plucked string or disfavored accent) have been merging in English speakers' minds at least since 1611. The OED has a citation from that year appearing in Randle Cotgrave's Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, where deboire is defined as "an after taste, ill smacke, or twang, which an vnsauorie thing leaues behind in the mouth." And adjectival twangy has had its special pungency since 1887, when a Saturday Review writer used the phrase "worse...than any other cheese, being, as a rule, either tasteless or else twangy." Moving in the other direction, tang has been used to describe unusual or unpleasant speech as far back as 1669 — in his Elements of Speech William Holder wrote of "a pretty affectation in the Allemain, which gives their Speech a different Tang from ours." (I'm reminded of the similar conflation of guttural with gutter, as examined here.)

If "twangy taste" represents a common eggcornic confusion going back four centuries, other contributions to Freeman's column are so idiosyncratic that they don't even register as pings on the usage radar. The fatigued wife of an editor rather dramatically told him she was "not long for this world," but he heard it as "not long for the swirl" — a collocation that produces exactly zero Googlehits. Still, as Freeman writes, this eggcorn substitution "should resonate with anyone exhausted by the swirl of a busy schedule." More evidence that eggcorns are the offspring of our endless linguistic creativity, not simply, in the words of one of Freeman's harrumphing readers, "created by people who never read, of whom we have far too many."

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 13, 2007 09:48 AM