August 08, 2007

Pails and flounders

Ever since I got into the eggcorn business, people have been nominating errors as eggcorns, or asking if some error is an eggcorn.  The American Dialect Society mailing list has a thread headed "Eggcorn?" every so often, and I get lots of mail with that header.  Some of these errors are already in the eggcorn database, some are lovely new finds, but others don't seem to me to be eggcorns, for one reason or another.  The latest chapter began on August 3, with an "Eggcorn?" posting from Wilson Gray asking about the following, from MacUpdates comments:

If the author cleans up that one glitch, then I'll make a b-line for his app.

Larry Horn and I saw no semantic motivation for b-line and suggested that it was probably as opaque for the writer as bee-line would have been.  And I launched into yet another discussion of things that aren't eggcorns but resemble them in some respects.  Here's a somewhat spiffed-up version of what I said.

1.  Pails.  B-line exemplifies a fairly common error type, involving a part X of an expression that can be parsed out but can't be easily assigned a meaning: in [bi]-line, line is a recognizable element, but what is [bi]?  The name of the letter B?  The verb be?  The noun bee?  The proper name Bea?  Something unique to this expression (a "cran morph")?

[Before you complain, let me explain that the technical term "cran morph" (from the cran part of cranberry) was coined well before the world was faced with cranapple juice and similar products.]

If you can think of an item pronounced like X, or something close to it, that would seem to contribute some sense to the whole expression, then interpreting the expression as containing that item and spelling the expression accordingly produces an eggcorn (or, of course, gets you the right analysis and spelling).

On the other hand, if you're stumped about the identity of X -- that is, if the larger expression seems irretrievably idiomatic to you -- you can just pick some existing item Y pronounced like X, ideally one of the right sort of category to fit where X occurs (so, for [bi]-line, a noun); you'll probably be biased towards picking a frequent word, or one with a short spelling, or maybe you'll pick one at random.  The result is a type of error i'm now calling a PAIL, after the (very common) spelling "beyond the pail", where the baffling noun pronounced [pel] is taken to represent the everyday noun pail; yes, it doesn't make sense, but then idioms are like that. 

(I'm paraphrasing my son-in-law Paul Armstrong here, who used the "pail" spelling in his blog a while back, was astounded to discover that the spelling was supposed to be "pale", and even more astounded to read about the history of the expression.  His actual words: "For better or worse, it's an idiom I picked up and I use it as a whole.  I don't know where I picked up the pail spelling but I considered it an idiom and thus seemingly odd spellings or disjoint meanings are not beyond reason...")

In any case, I take b-line to be a pail rather than an eggcorn.

(Let me stress, as I have before in similar situations, that the stories I told above about eggcorns and pails are stories about the genesis of these errors.  Once the incorrect interpretations and spellings are out there, other people pick them up.  For these later users, these interpretations and spellings are just the way things are, and they either make some sense, in the case of the eggcorns, or they're merely odd idioms, in the case of the pails.)

2. Flounders.  More things that aren't eggcorns.  Back in May, Michael Quinion and I had an exchange about


(an example contributed to Michael's World Wide Words newsletter), with advent for event.  I said at that time (May 24):

I'm inclined to see it as a simple confusion of phonologically and semantically similar words, like flaunt/flout, militate/mitigate, flounder/founder, etc.  (Incidentally, it would be nice to have a technical term for these confusions.  Let me suggest FLOUNDERS.)

[In fact, Geoff Pullum has just posted about the flounder flaunt/flout.  (Try saying "the flounder flaunt/flout" three times fast.)]

Flounders are the counterpart of ordinary classical malapropisms ("ordinary" here means: not of the eggcorn subtype).  In both flounders and -- let me continue this frenzy of naming with yet another term -- PINEAPPLES ("He is the very pineapple [pinnacle] of politeness", from Mrs. Malaprop herself), an incorrect word E is substituted for a phonologically similar word T, but in flounders, the error word E and the target word T also overlap semantically, while in most pineapples E and T are semantically distant (if E is an existing word at all).  Obviously, there's some room here for borderline cases.

Flounders and pineapples as a set (FLOUNDAPPLES?) are distinguished from pails and eggcorns as a set (PAILCORNS?) in that the former involve confusions of wholes, while the latter involve confusions of parts of (at least partially) fixed expressions.

3. Four types.  For those of you who like squares of oppositions, the story so far can be summarized as:

Flounders   --     Pineapples
    |                            |
Pails           --     Eggcorns

All four types involve relationships between meaningful elements of some sort, a characteristic that distinguishes them from simple spelling errors like "loose" for lose or "there" for their.  Though writers are often exhorted not to "confuse" expressions like its and it's, there's no confusion going on in such errrors: the identities of the expressions involved -- that is, the pairings of pronunciation and meaning that they represent -- are perfectly clear to the writers; their problem is the link between the expressions and their spellings.  The four types above (usually) can be detected through what look like non-standard spellings, but they aren't orthographic errors at root.

It would be nice to have a cute term that picks out these four types as a set, and distinguishes them from simple spelling errors and also from aberrant pronunciations, like "REtart" for "REtard", and aberrant meanings, like ritzy taken to mean 'cheap, trashy' (and some other things to come).  But my clever-terminology machine is worn out for today, so I'll have to resort to something more technical: EXPRESSION-SUBSTITUTION ERRORS, because they involve one form-meaning pairing substituting for another.

4. Esculators.  Among the other things that aren't eggcorns are reanalyses motivated not by semantic considerations but by morphological (or morphophonological) considerations, reanalyses that I've treated in several earlier postings.  Some representative examples:

nucular, perculate, esculate, simular, jubulant, nuptuals
doctorial, pastorial, pectorials, similiar
intravenious, mischievious, grievious, heinious
overature, aperature, fixature, mixature, strucature

To which I can add some morphological re-shapings involving -edly vs. -ably that have excited some discussion on ADS-L over the last few years:

supposably, assumably, reputably [-ably for -edly]
presumedly [-edly for -ably]

These ESCULATORS don't fit into the scheme above.

[Added 8/9/07: And then there are the eggcornesque misquotations (like "trill/toll the ancient Yuletide carol") that I reported on in "Cousin of Eggcorn".]

5. Thinkos vs. typos.  Another reminder that I've issued several times: all this is about "advertent" errors, or what Geoff Nunberg (in Going Nucular) has called "thinkos" (vs. "typos", if we extend that term to include all sorts of inadvertent errors, including Fay/Cutler malapropisms, word retrieval errors based on semantics, inadvertent blends, telescopings, transpositions, omissions, perseverations, anticipations, and more).  When people make advertent errors, they're saying or writing what they intend to; the problem is that what they do isn't in line with what most other people do.  Thinkos are "false knowledge".

A further reminder: the same production can represent different things in different contexts.   One person's general practice can be another person's momentary lapse; "beyond the pail", for instance, can occur as a typo as well as by intention.  In fact, on different occasions the same production could be (at least) an inadvertent error, an advertent error, a dialect form, or a deliberate creation.  In giving examples above, I wasn't claiming that every occurrence of the examples should be categorized the way I categorized them -- only that an appreciable number of them can be.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 8, 2007 01:48 AM