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Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia

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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:

Original New
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!


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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.

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22 Responses to “Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia”
  1. Soap says:

    The Eggcorn Database links don’t work.

  2. Ben Zimmer says:

    Sorry about that. I’ve contacted Chris Waigl, the administrator of the Eggcorn Database, to see if we can get it up and running again. I fear the site couldn’t handle the new traffic generated by today’s column!

  3. Ben Zimmer says:

    Until the Eggcorn Database is working again, readers can use the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to read a description of the site here or browse through the complete list of eggcorns here.

  4. James says:

    And to think…before yesterday, I didn’t know what an eggcorn was.

  5. Jo Ashburn says:

    an eggcorn that used to drive my ex-father-in-law crazy was *run the gauntlet* instead of *run the gantlet*. I guess those who have changed it visualize two lines of knights with mailed gauntlets trying to hit the runner or something like that. But the new usage seems pretty well established.

  6. John Baker says:

    I’m enjoying these essays, Ben, and congratulations on your post at OUP.

    Note that “phased by” is not really an eggcorn, because there is no reanalysis involved. “Phase” is simply a variant spelling of “faze,” accepted by some but not most dictionaries, that long predates science fictional phasers.

  7. Andrew Clegg says:

    Fasinating to find out I’ve been using “straight-laced”, “baited breath” and “just desserts” all this time without knowing they were modern corruptions.

    One quibble though. Surely an analogous but distinct orthographic process is responsible for “chaise lounge”? This one must be based on a mis-reading (or a mistaken assumption of error) because “longue” and “lounge” don’t sound much alike. A true eggcorn for “chaise longue” would be something like “chairs long”.

    Perhaps we can think of a term for such adaptations that’s as catchy as “eggcorn”.

    Andrew.

  8. E W Gilman says:

    I was a bit surprised to find “vocal chords” in the eggcorn list. I believe we did some sort of treatment of that term in WDEU.

    E W Gilman

  9. harmon says:

    I’m old enough to remember when a team “cinched” the pennant. When something was so easy as to be certain, you’d say, “it’s a cinch.” The word came, no doubt, from cinching a saddle on a horse – i.e., tightening it with a strap – the cinch – underneath the horse’s belly.

    Somehow, over the last thirty or forty years, teams have come to “clinch” the pennant.

  10. Mia says:

    Since so much of the recognition and trackig of eggcorns refers to their written form, I wonder how much can be attributed to spellcheckers? I think of the “chaise longue/chaise lounge” one in particular. That one just LOOKS like something a spellchecker would do; and there are plenty of people who might not question their spellchecker program on words that they are uncertain of.

  11. Kaleberg says:

    It’s nice being able to find all these eggcorns under one oak tree.

    My favorite was the Charlie Brown cartoon where he is playing tag and cries out “Alley alley oxen free-o!” and, I believe, Lucy corrects him, “That is supposed to be ‘Alley, alley, all out are in free’” Charlie Brown was quite embarrassed, but there was no way I was going to get rid of my oxen free-o.

  12. Oliver Faltz says:

    Here are a few I have heard locally. Sarcasm became sourcasm, and it means the same. Whimsical became wimpsical, which means wimpy. I don’t use Lackadaisical any more, because the folks who say laxadaisical think I’m saying it wrong.

  13. Alexis says:

    I don’t think “clinch” is an eggcorn for “cinch”. They’re just two similar-sounding words with meanings that both make sense and occur in “_____ the pennant”.

  14. Talley Sue Hohlfeld says:

    Mia wrote: “I think of the “chaise longue/chaise lounge” one in particular. That one just LOOKS like something a spellchecker would do”

    Perhaps, but I was the copyeditor at McCall’s only a few years after computers and spell-checkers became common in the industry yet still before very many non-tech, non-business people had them in their homes. And I got a letter from a reader scolding me for using the wrong term; everyone knows, she wrote, that it is “chaise lounge.”

    I think she had been mis-reading it; most folks weren’t spell-checking things much at that time.

  15. [...] identification of many more eggcorns, including some that Oxfore University Press editor Ben Zimmer listed which could almost be considered a part of mainstream [...]

  16. [...] identification of many more eggcorns, including some that Oxfore University Press editor Ben Zimmer listed which could almost be considered a part of mainstream [...]

  17. [...] segment here.) The whole thing was inspired by an OUPblog column I wrote a few months ago, “Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia.” With the help of some amusing animated characters, ABC News correspondent Robert Krulwich [...]

  18. Will says:

    Chaise lounge:
    Etymology: by folk etymology from French chaise longue
    Date: circa 1906

    “Somehow, over the last thirty or forty years, teams have come to “clinch” the pennant.”

    –That’s because “clinch” means “to make final” or “settle.”

  19. [...] identification of many more eggcorns, including some that Oxfore University Press editor Ben Zimmer listed which could almost be considered a part of mainstream [...]

  20. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ben Zimmer, Amanda Lin Costa. Amanda Lin Costa said: fascinating language play w/ @bgzimmer http://bit.ly/aUhCMu (post inspired this ABC News segment: http://bit.ly/c8BYs4) [...]

  21. [...] or sayings. Their name itself derives from a misspelling of “acorn”. As Ben explains in Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia, eggcorns might eventually reach folk-etymological permanence, or they might continue to be [...]

  22. [...] or sayings. Their name itself derives from a misspelling of “acorn”. As Ben explains in Shifting Idioms: An Eggcornucopia, eggcorns might eventually reach folk-etymological permanence, or they might continue to be [...]

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