Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia
In our last installment, I noted that the increasingly common spelling of minuscule as miniscule is not just your average typographical error: it makes sense in a new way, since the respelling brings the word into line with miniature, minimum, and a whole host of tiny terms using the mini- prefix. It might not be correct from an etymological standpoint, since the original word is historically related to minus instead of mini-, but most users of English don’t walk around with accurate, in-depth etymologies in their heads. (Sorry, Anatoly!) Rather, we’re constantly remaking the language by using the tools at our disposal, very often by comparing words and phrases to other ones we already know. If something in the lexicon seems a bit murky, we may try to make it clearer by bringing it into line with our familiar vocabulary. This is especially true with idioms, those quirky expressions that linger in the language despite not making much sense on a word-by-word basis.
Take the idiom free rein, meaning ‘freedom of action or expression.’ Our blog editor Becca Ford recently passed along the usage tip from Garner’s Modern American Usage, which advises that this is the correct form, not free reign. “The allusion is to horses, not to kings or queens,” Garner writes, “but some writers have apparently forgotten the allusion.” Considering that relatively few people these days are riding around on horses, it’s understandable that the old equestrian basis for the idiom might be replaced by something that sounds the same but makes new semantic sense. For many people, reign seems to work in the expression just as well as rein, since having free reign is reinterpreted to mean having wide-ranging dominance or control as a powerful monarch would.
Over on Language Log, a group weblog about language and linguistics where I also contribute, reshapings like free reign have been given an unusual new name: eggcorns. It all started when one Language Log contributor reported on someone misspelling the word acorn as eggcorn, which makes sense if you think of an acorn as roughly shaped like an egg. Another contributor suggested that we use eggcorn to refer to this general class of errors, and before long a whole Eggcorn Database was up and running, with hundreds of entries from damp squid to grow like top seed. (Listeners of the BBC Radio 4 show Word of Mouth recently heard me go on at length about eggcorns, in an interview archived here.)
When an eggcorn catches on and finds a permanent place in the language, it falls under the banner of what historical linguists call folk etymology. One historical example is curry favor, which originated as curry favel, referring to a horse in a 14th-century French poem, the Roman de Fauvel. The horse managed to connive humans into pampering him, and this first-class treatment included “currying” or grooming his coat. Another example is humble pie, which started off as umble pie, meaning a pie made of umbles (the innards of a deer or other animal). Nowadays, if we curry favor with someone by eating humble pie, the old etymological connections to medieval French horses and deer innards have been long forgotten.
Present-day eggcorns might eventually reach folk-etymological permanence, or they might continue to be considered nonstandard errors, albeit creative ones. As with minuscule vs. miniscule, the Oxford English Corpus is a valuable tool for determining whether a particular eggcorn is a flash in the pan or here to stay. Here is a list of idiomatic words and phrases (with links to dictionary entries on AskOxford) and their eggcorn equivalents (with links to appropriate entries on the Eggcorn Database). For each pair, you can see the frequencies of the two alternate forms as represented in the 21st-century texts of the Oxford English Corpus:
|sleight of hand: 85%||15%: slight of hand|
|fazed by: 71%||29%: phased by|
|home in on: 65%||35%: hone in on|
|a shoo-in: 65%||35%: a shoe-in|
|bated breath: 60%||40%: baited breath|
|free rein: 54%||46%: free reign|
|chaise longue: 54%||46%: chaise lounge|
|vocal cords: 51%||49%: vocal chords|
|just deserts: 42%||58%: just desserts|
|fount of knowledge/wisdom: 41%||59%: font of knowledge/wisdom|
|strait-laced: 34%||66%: straight-laced|
The examples towards the bottom of the list, where the newer eggcornish form outnumbers the historically correct idiom, are the ones that Oxford lexicographers particularly need to
hone in on home in on. Hence straight-laced is listed in Oxford dictionaries as an accepted alternative to strait-laced, while slight of hand has not achieved the same level of recognition. Those who expect idioms to remain frozen in time might be phased by fazed by these developments, but eggcorn connoisseurs see them as much more benign. On Language Log eggcorns have been called “tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity.” Poetic innovation or descent into linguistic anarchy? You make the call!
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.