August 24, 2004

On the eggcorn beet

Here on the eggcorn beat, business is booming. They pour in every day, and then there are some contributed by enthusiastic Language Log readers, like reporter Linda Seebach. Here are the latest three to come by my eyes, plus fourteen more from my archives, and some from the usage manuals. But first, some reminders.

Reminder: Any single example is inscrutable. We can't know for sure what gave rise to it. It could be an on-line, inadvertent, glitch in spelling, or a one-shot retrieval of the wrong lexical item. Or it could be a reanalysis of an existing expression. We can guess about what was going on in the mind of the person who produced the example, and we can back up our guesses (when we're lucky) by noting whether the item was corrected, whether the unexpected item occurs repeatedly, whether the person who produced it defends it, and so on. But "eggcorn" -- like "classical malapropism", "syntactic blend", and other labels, some of which I'll soon talk about in this forum -- is the name of a mental phenomenon; you have to know what someone intended, not just what they did.

Another reminder, which follows from the first: An example produced by one person can have a very different status from "the same" example produced by someone else. One person's blunder is another person's beloved eggcorn.

A final reminder, which follows from the other two: If it's an eggcorn for just one person, it's an eggcorn (for them, but not for anyone else). If it's an eggcorn for lots of people, we'll probably call it a "folk etymology", but there's no clear line here. If it's an eggcorn for most people, then it's the new dominant variant, and we all stop pasting labels on it.

On to the inventories. I've tried to eliminate examples that have already been mentioned here. (I have additional citations of at loggerheads > at lagerheads, for example, but this one's already been discussed here.) I might easily have erred here. Really, it's time for someone to keep an index of examples. No, don't look at me; I can barely cope as it is.

And some of the examples might just be inadvertent errors, like the following gem, with unthrone > unthrown (see the first reminder above):

As animal stories go, the mountain lion killed yesterday in Palo Alto could unthrown the black mamba snake from its perch of memorable tales. ["Mountain lion may give snake competition", Palo Alto Daily News, 5/18/04, p. 7]

Ok, now on to the inventories.

1. exercise > exorcize. Richard Schneider, Jr., editor's column ("Sept.-Oct. 2004: Hearts and Minds"), The Gay & Lesbian Review, Sept.-Oct. 2004, p. 4:

Congressman Barney Frank is fond of admitting that the public has repeatedly proven more tolerant, or at least less exorcized, about GLBT progress than he had expected.

2. plum(b) > plump, plumb > plum, plum > plumb. Larry Horn, ADS-L, 8/22/04:

From a recent spam:

My favorite part is the movies area, theres movies listed in here for download that are still in theaters - plump crazy :)

Checking google I find a number of hits on "plump crazy","plump nuts", and so on, as well as "plumcrazy".

Note that the modifier here spelled plum is historically plumb; it's an eggcorn that has pretty much succeeded in making it in the big time, so that at least some dictionaries (AHD4, for instance) list it as a alternative to plumb.

Meanwhile, the "correctly spelled" modifier plumb sometimes intrudes on the territory of the fruit noun plum, used metaphoricially, as when Richard Jasper congratulated Michael Palmer (on the newsgroup soc.motss, 6/16/04) on a new job:

Congratulations, MP! A plumb assignment indeed!

3. blackmail > blackmale. E-mail from Language Log fan Sylvus Tarn to me, 8/20/04:'s my contribution, though I'm not really certain it qualifies. A (very) brief google search turned up stuff on black male porn, which is not at all how this word is being used.

I've uppercased the eggcorn to emphasize it.


Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, August 10 2004 @ 04:44 PM EDT

... IBM's reaction to SCO's attempt to BLACKMALE should have been a lesson to those that plan on using the legal system to stop this industry revolution.


I'm thinking the writer came up with this word because Darl McBride (SCO CEO) is so strongly associated with with SCO and is considered (at best) by this community to be a blackguard; he's talked about "all hat and no cattle'" and again would be considered by them as a 'black hat' in the stereotypical Western.

Clearly, for some people blackmail has lost its association with written communication ("mail"), so that the second part of the expression is open for reinterpretation. I wouldn't entirely discount the possibility that the (perceived) threatening character of males, and black males in particular, played some role in the reanalysis.

4. Blasts from the past. Here's an assortment of eggcorns from my files, mostly from ADS-L (whose archives can be consulted on its website.

4.1. fine-tooth comb > fine toothcomb. An interpretation reported to me by Gerald Gazdar in the summer of 1987, when I corrected his misapprehension as reflected in a paper he was writing.

4.2. torticollis > tortoise collar. Reported by Mark Mandel on ADS-L, 9/25/00. Torticollis, according to Mandel, is "a medical condition in which the neck is more or less permanently twisted so the head is not facing forward".

4.3. paramour > power mower, candelabra > candle arbor. Discussed by Larry Horn on ADS-L, 7/6/01, following up on an original report by Mark Mandel.

4.4. bald face(d) lie/liar > bold face(d) lie/liar. Discussed by me in two postings to ADS-L, 8/27/02, with some Google hit statistics.

4.5. bald on record > bold on record. Follow-up on ADS-L to 4.4. by Beverly Flanigan, reporting on how some of her students cope with the "bald on record" level of Brown and Levinson's politeness hierarchy.

4.6. Magnum Boerum > Maggie Bowman, chifforobe > S(c)ha(e)f(f)er Robe. Reshapings introducing proper names, reported on by me on ADS-L, 9/21/02. The first (from an article in The American Horticulturist) denotes a old apple variety; the second (observed by me on labels in various antique shops) denotes a piece of furniture.

4.7. say one's piece > say one's peace, peace of mind > piece of mind. The first was noted by me on ADS-L, 5/21/03, from Mike Thomas (and others) on soc.motss, who queried my spelling of "I said my piece". Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage reports this widespread reanalysis, as well as the less common "piece of mind"; MWDEU notes various "confusions" of peace and piece, even going so far as to employ the verb "botch" in this connection. But say one's peace is now so common among younger speakers (who are baffled by the claim that the original noun was piece) that it begins to rival have another thing (for original think) coming as a newly dominant variant.

4.8. teem with > team with. Another one from Mike Thomas on soc.motss, noted by me on ADS-L, 7/21/03.

4.9. bona fide > bonafied. Reported by John McChesney-Young to me in e-mail, 7/14/03, from a message to a homeschooling list that morning:

Well, maybe I've been going on without understanding the situation. I thought they were hassling only bonified truants, rather than homeschoolers who are dotting their "i"s and crossing their "t"s.

4.10. unbeknownst > unbenounced, a deluded state > a diluted state. Both discovered by Larry Horn (ADS-L posting, 8/25/03) in a review of the movie "Nurse Betty". In a posting later that day, Horn reports 475 Google hits on unbenounced.

4.11. per se > per say. Peter McGraw (ADS-L posting, 8/27/03) reports on the following from an e-mail message: "I am not only responsible for CFR but also Governmental Relations as well as we do not have a lobbyist per say."

4.12. windfall > winfall. Herb Stahlke (ADS-L posting, 10/30/03) cites:

Sub-head in today's Indianapolis Star, front page, above the fold:

$95.4 million jackpot is biggest individual winfall in state history.

Google shows 9320 hits for "winfall", many of which are lottery-related. It shows 238,000 hits for "windfall". Of the first 100, only one is lottery related, and that one occurs in The Guardian. Many uses are related to unexpected money from other sources, though.

4.13. martial law > mashall law. Perpetrated by David Fenton, posting to soc.motss on 5/7/04, who protested the treatment of prisoners in Iraq by saying: "This would be unacceptable in the US, even in the aftermath of a war and under marshall law."

4.14. crowning glory > crown and glory, be overdue > be overdo. Beverly Dumas, much taken with the terminology "eggcorn", reports on two of them in ADS-L postings, 8/12/04: "According to a survey, the thinning of a woman's crown and glory is one of the major causes of deflated self-esteem." And "(she'd been vaccinated against it once but was overdo a repeat)".

5. In the usage dictionaries. One place to find eggcorns is in the usage dictionaries and in other inventories of "confusables" (or "confusibles", depending on who you read). Under peak, peek, pique in MWDEU, for example, you'll discover that peak tends to substitute for the other two; I believe that pique > peak (as in "peak one's interest") is especially common, definitely in eggcorn territory.

For the most part, such sources confine themselves to especially common "confusions". But some take a wider view. Here's Bryan Garner, "Making Peace in the Language Wars" (the preface to Garner's Dictionary of American Usage (2003)), responding to Tom McArthur's criticisms of Garner's first edition (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998)) in English Today and offering what he sees as terms of a "truce" between prescriptivists and descriptivists, including a position on eggcorns:

...prescriptivists need to be realistic. They can't expect perfection or permanence, and they must bow to universal usage. But when an expression is in transition -- when only part of the population has adopted a new usage that seems genuinely undesirable -- prescribers should be allowed, within reason, to stigmatize it. There's no reason to tolerate wreckless driving in place of reckless driving. Or wasteband in place of waistband. Or corollary when misused for correlation. Multiply these things by 10,000, and you have an idea of what we're dealing with. There are legitimate objections to the slippage based not just on widespread confusion but also on imprecision of thought, on the spread of linguistic uncertainty, on the etymological disembodiment of words, and on decaying standards generally. (p. xliv)

McArthur poked fun at the wasteband entry, and rightly so, to my mind. If Garner really is going to aim his stigma ray gun at every eggcorn (or classical malapropism) in the land, then his dictionary will indeed bloat up by thousands or tens of thousands of entries, most of them addressing the "confusions" of only small numbers of people (however strongly these people might hold to their hypotheses about the expressions in question) -- people who are incredibly unlikely to consult a dictionary, any dictionary, about whether their language is "correct" on these points.

Garner's larger claims, about undesirable novelty, imprecision of thought, spread of linguistic uncertainty, the etymological disembodiment of words, and decaying standards, are mostly just silly. Users of eggcorns are quite clear about the meanings they intend, they've reshaped expressions in an attempt to make them more transparent and comprehensible, and nearly all of the time these expressions can be understood without any difficulty in spoken language. The novel spellings do take some getting used to, and they do indeed conceal the etymological originals; that's the price you pay for for these "acres of diamonds" (as Linda Seebach described them). Even if they annoy you -- and some of them do annoy me -- they're scarcely the precursor to the Last Days of Civilization.

And I've never understood the position that it's the duty of the educated elites (like Garner and me) to try to prevent people from using innovative variants, until there are only a handful of us holdouts left standing, at which point we have to, however regretfully, let people do what they will. Maybe it's a Noble But Doomed Warrior thing. I just don't get it. Meanwhile, nobody says that I have to use any of these variants myself. Mostly I don't. But I can still admire the poetry of everyday language, even if it's not mine.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 24, 2004 07:53 PM