October 15, 2007

Cow-towing to Celsius

The Scientific Activist of 10/13/07 reported on

responses to an announcement by Chief Meteorologist Tim Heller on Houston ABC-13's Weather Blog when he announced that the TV station's weather report would now include temperatures in Celsius in addition to Fahrenheit.

Among the ranting responses was this one, with the wonderful cow-tow in it:

This is just another example of giving in to people who come here from other countries and are too lazy to learn our ways (English, non-metric temps, etc.). Why should they have to learn our ways, we feed them their ways so they don't have to bother. This is a TERRIBLE idea. If I need to know how to convert something from metric to American temps, I will get a book and figure it out or find it on the internet. They should do the same. With the internet, anything can be learned without it having to be fed to us. I don't expect other countries to cow-tow to my English, we should NOT cow-tow to their language and desires to not bother to learn our language and ways.

(Hat tip to Paul Armstrong.)

Before I go on to cow-tow, here are a couple more responses about the Celsius threat to the American Way of Life in which the metric system and language are tied:

NO, on celsius. This is the United States of America. We speak English and use Fahrenheit. Well, I guess you could show wind speed in kilometers, too. Where does it stop? I guess when we become a Spanish speaking nation.

Just another concession to political correctness and liberalism. By compromising our language, our culture, our standards, and the like we only enable those who refuse to assimilate and only wish to be leeches upon our largesse.

There are more.  To be fair, there are also critical replies to the ravings.

Now for cow-tow (also spelled solid, as cowtow, and separated, as cow tow).  This one is in Brians, under cowtow/kowtow, and was noted in a discussion on the Eggcorn Forum back in March.  You can google up a pile of hits; it's all over the place.  The question then is whether this is a simple misspelling, with initial /k/ spelled by the more common C rather than K; or a spelling like pail for pale in beyond the pail (more on this below); or an eggcorn in which cows are somehow involved (a possibility that the posters on the forum found unlikely).  It is, of course, possible that different people have hit on the spelling by different routes.

As background for further discussion, I note that eggcorns come in three types:

Type 1, involving semantic reanalysis of some part of an expression that is not reflected in spelling.  These are HIDDEN EGGCORNS, like the die is cast taken to refer to casting things in molds, rather than throwing dice (in the ecdb here).

Type 2, involving semantic reanalysis of some part of an expression that's reflected in spelling but not in pronunciation, as in the dye is cast, with the expression taken to refer to coloring things (in the ecdb here).

Type 3, involving semantic reanalysis of some part of an expression that's reflected in both spelling and pronunciation, as in mindgrain for migraine (in the ecdb here).

In these classic eggcorns, there is a reanalysis of one or more parts of an expression as representing lexical material not in the original and contributing to the (perceived) semantics of the result.  In types 2 and 3, the reanalysis is reflected in the spelling.

But there are other errors in which one or more parts of an expression are re-spelled so as to replace opaque parts by recognizable lexical material, but without any noticeable improvement in the semantics; what gives rise to them is a drive to find familiar elements as much as possible.  I'll call these DEMI-EGGCORNS.  The errors that I called PAILS in an earlier posting -- named for the pail of beyond the pail -- are demi-eggcorns: they provide familiar parts that nevertheless don't contribute meaning to the resulting expression.

Of course it's possible that once the reanalysis has been made by some people, others will find some way to rationalize the result.  Maybe there are people who think pails are involved when something is beyond the pail.

And maybe there are people who think that cows are involved in cow-tow.  But I'd guess that many people who use this spelling are just pleased to see a familiar element, cow, in the expression, and treat the whole expression as yet another puzzling idiom of English.  That is, I'm suggesting that many occurrences of cow-tow are demi-eggcorns (some probably are simple misspellings) -- of a type corresponding to the type 2 eggcorns above, with spelling altered but pronunciation preserved.

So you're asking if there are demi-eggcorns corresponding to the type 3 eggcorns above.  Here's a candidate, from a discussion on the American Dialect Society mailing list back in September: southmore, as in "freshman southmore junior senior":

Clubs: Track, Basketball, Freshman/Southmore Choir, Powderpuff Football, Intramural Football, & Senior Yearbook Committee, ...  (link)

You were strong as a freshman on this board, but then you suffered from the southmore slump. I was starting to lose hope, but damn son, you are right back ...  (link)

1125 FR - Freshman
1125SO - Southmore
1125JR - Junior
1125SN - Senior  (link)

hey, i am abrahan garza, class of 1997, and was in band from 1994 to 1997 minus my southmore year when i was the mascot.  (link)

This variant (which seems to be widely distributed in the U.S. and, from testimony on ADS-L, goes back to the 19th century) is clearly based on the disyllabic pronunciation of sophomore, with both the vowel and the offset consonant of the first syllable reshaped so as yield a familiar English word, south, in place of the unfamiliar first syllable of the original.  Maybe some people think the compass point has something to do with the second year of college, but I suspect that the motive for the reshaping is primarily the search for familiar elements, for some people quite possibly encouraged by the south of the equally opaque southpaw.  (Larry Horn, who made this suggestion on ADS-L, noted that historically southpaw is compositional, but with an etymology that hardly anyone appreciates; for most people, it's just a idiomatic compound.  For the etymology, see southpaw in AHD4.)

To sum up, I'm suggesting that there are two drives behind reshapings: to find familiar elements as much as possible, and to find meaning as much as possible.  Classic eggcorns show both effects, demi-eggcorns only the first.  Cow-tow looks like a type 2 demi-eggcorn, southmore like a type 3 demi-eggcorn.

An entertaining final note: back in November 2005 on the Eggcorn Forum, Ken Lakritz noted cow toe as a variant spelling of kowtow.  He suggested that showing deference by kissing someone's toe might be involved in this version -- but it could be based on a mispronunciation of written {kowtow} (or {cow-tow}), based on the fact that {tow} can be pronounced like toe.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 15, 2007 02:42 PM