August 28, 2004

Urban legend eggcorns

It's always risky to claim that "no one ever really said that" (or "no one ever really wrote that"), but sometimes cute linguistic substitutions are too cute to be true.

On August 18th, a Press Association story appeared in the Guardian and elsewhere claiming that "[p]atients' lives are being put at risk because letters from hospital doctors are being sent to secretaries in India to be typed and returned to GPs with mistakes". Google News finds more than 20 follow-up stories. But Ray Girvan at Apothecary's Drawer Weblog points to discussion on, as well as web-search results, showing that the cited examples "were circulating in the medical transcription field long before Indian outsourcing was an issue": "phlebitis / flea-bite-us ('we don't even own a dog!'), baloney / below knee ('Transcribed by ward clerk: Baloney amputation') and acute angina / a cute angina ('I certainly hope he has a cute angina, because his face is uglier than hell')", and so forth.

In this case, as Ray observes, the motivation for the apparent fabrications is surely "xenophobia and local employment protection". But there are other examples of funny substitutions where there are only a few real eggcorns among the jokes and made-up stories -- perhaps sometimes none. One example is "self-defecating" for "self-deprecating", which plays a character-defining role in the movie "Kissing Jessica Stein".

At first, I thought that this was only an urban legend eggcorn, but of the 359 examples in Google's current index, I found a few apparent keepers:

(link) There is also a self-defecating sense of humor that finds it’s way into just about everything they do.
(link) It appears they always feel it is incumbent upon their critical prowess to offer sensationalize homogeneous opinions as if by proclamation which almost always has more to do with their flighty self-defecating language giving little credit to acting, writing, cinematography and inherent crafts.
(link) Self-defecating humor is essential aspect for a successful comedian to have, and it was refreshing to see that this comedian was a humble man as well.
(link) Another approach is to point out that even if my self-image is correct, I have the option to change it. I am also reminded of Nate's comment that I should be less self-defecating.

(link) I think there’s a fine line between having low self-esteem and – this is what I think our culture encourages us to do – to be not so assertive, to be modest and to a certain extent, self-defecating or more responsible for mistakes or problems in our lives, and we’re more introspective.
(link) Just stop with self-defecating comments, okay? Not only are they total conversation-stoppers, but if people hear them enough, they start to believe them.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 28, 2004 10:49 PM