On Tuesday, in celebration of National Dictionary Day, ABC World News with Charles Gibson ran a piece about how some old expressions are being respelled (and reimagined) in new ways. They had me on to say a few words about how such respellings sometimes become so common that they make their way into the hallowed pages of Oxford’s dictionaries. (You can watch the webcast version of the 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 took a look at a few of the “eggcorns” I discussed, namely vocal chords (vs. vocal cords), free reign (vs. free rein), and shoe-in (vs. shoo-in). Despite the light-hearted tone of the segment, I’ve received a number of grave responses wondering why Oxford University Press is so cavalierly allowing “corrupted” spellings into its dictionaries. So perhaps some clarification is in order.
As I described in the original column, shifts in spelling can now more easily be tracked by OUP lexicographers using the two-billion-word Oxford English Corpus, a database of 21st-century texts encompassing everything from academic journal articles to casual blog entries. The ABC News piece featured the relative frequencies of the variant forms as reflected in the Corpus. So we find contemporary writers opting for vocal chords instead of vocal cords 49% of the time, free reign instead of free rein 46% of the time, and shoe-in instead of shoo-in 35% of the time. Those data-driven numbers give us a quantitative handle on the way these expressions are currently being spelled, but the crafting of a dictionary entry is of course a qualitative process. We’re not looking at the Corpus data and deciding that because, say, just desserts has passed a magical 50% threshold, that means we automatically welcome this spelling as an accepted version of just deserts. Rather, we have to use our best judgment to discern when a popular variant needs to be included and how we present that information in new editions of our dictionaries.
Sometimes that information is presented with a simple cross-reference. If you look up straight-laced in the latest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, you’ll see it labeled thusly: “variant spelling of STRAIT-LACED,” cross-referring the reader to the main entry for strait-laced. Interestingly, if you check the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which organizes its entries historically, you’ll discover that straight-laced is actually attested slightly earlier than strait-laced (though both variants emerged in the mid-16th century). So not only is the straight-laced variant common enough that it can be found in standard contemporary writing, it actually has historical justification as well.
The same can be said for vocal chords, one of the examples mentioned in the ABC News piece. I was careful to say in the interview that vocal cords is the standard American spelling, because the vocal chords variant has long been accepted in the United Kingdom (along with other anatomical uses like spinal chord). Even in the United States, both variants can be found from early on. I did a quick check of historical databases of American periodicals and found vocal cords appearing in 1830, but vocal chords actually shows up two years earlier. It was only later on that American writers settled on vocal cords as the standard version. If we now see an uptick in the usage of vocal chords, likely under the influence of the musical sense of chord, it’s important to note that this isn’t some brand-new “corruption” but a long-standing historical form.
Sometimes alternate spellings will be noted in dictionaries with a usage note advising that a variant is considered by many to be nonstandard or incorrect. This is the route that NOAD took for free reign. Drawing on a similar tip from Garner’s Modern American Usage, NOAD states that free rein “is sometimes misinterpreted and written as free reign — predictable, perhaps, in a society only vaguely familiar with the reigns of royalty or the reins of farm animals.” So even though free reign has technically entered the dictionary, it’s accompanied by warning bells. Likewise, another nonstandard example I’ve discussed here, miniscule (as opposed to minuscule) is currently flagged by NOAD as “a common error.”
One generation’s “common error,” however, can be the next generation’s accepted variant, and this is where we rely on the Oxford English Corpus to give us a snapshot of how usage is shifting. The Corpus texts are tagged with sophisticated metadata that allows us to determine where exactly a variation in usage is cropping up. For instance, we can compare British English to American English, or edited to unedited texts, or news articles to fictional prose. Not surprisingly, we find that nonstandard variants appear more commonly in unedited writing, as in the wild and woolly blogosphere. As it happens, we now have an enormous amount of informal usage available at our fingertips thanks to the explosion of the Web, so nonstandard forms are much easier to spot these days. But just because we see something appearing with increasing frequency in casual online writing, that doesn’t mean we’ll feel compelled to treat it as dictionary-worthy — at least, not until it “crosses over” into reputable mainstream usage. We’re keeping tabs on these shifts by examining a wide range of writing styles and genres, even if the vast majority of the variant forms we find never make it into dictionary entries.
So fear not, we here at OUP aren’t “corrupting English intentionally,” as one concerned blogger put it. We’re just coming up with better tools to determine how people are actually using the language, in order to have our dictionaries accurately reflect what’s considered correct and acceptable in contemporary English. And sometimes that means wading knee-deep into “eggcorns” and their ilk, so that we can appreciate how words and phrases are given new semantic sense via creative reinterpretations of older forms. Therein, I would argue, lies the living, breathing essence of language change.
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.