Yesterday I gave you a fun little quiz about the original forms of commonly-used phrases. How many did you guess correctly? The answers are below, along with an extract from the book – Damp Squid by Jeremy Butterfield – which explains what happens with some of these changes in the English language.
Some changes in the English are the result of people torturing alien word shapes to extract a confession of meaning. Chaise lounge (instead of chaise longue) is one example, and another is in one foul swoop (rather than one fell swoop). The reasoning seems understandable. Fell no longer exists as an adjective in its own right, and is therefore not meaningful. It makes great sense to reinterpret it as a more common word which seems to convey the meaning of the phrase: something cruel and underhand. The many variations on fell revealed by the Oxford English Corpus show people struggling to make the phrase meaningful for them: full, foul, fall, fatal, fallow, flail, fowl, felled, feel.
Inventions like foul swoop are known as ‘eggcorns’, and often affect words or meanings used only in stock phrases. Eggcorns are the result of people using analogy and logic—which in language are often fallible guides—to literally rewrite a word’s history. Invented in 2003 by the linguist Professor Geoffrey Pullum, the name came from the chance sighting of the spelling eggcorn when ‘acorn’ was meant. The change was not arbitrary: it made some kind of semantic and conceptual sense. The difference between eggcorns and folk etymologies is that they are individual, rather than collective.
Linguists and word buffs can get very excited about eggcorns because they show language changing before our very eyes, and often throw light on how and why. They can also illuminate how it has changed in the past—apart from which many eggcorns have a folksy charm all their own.
So, without further ado, here are the answers from yesterday’s quiz:
Just Deserts: this is the original form, from the verb ‘to deserve’.
Strait-Laced: referring to the bindings which were drawn tightly on a corset – or indeed a straitjacket.
Minuscule: this is the actual spelling, though it is commonly mistaken.
Free Rein: Rein as in a horse – to let a horse have freedom to move as it wishes.
Bated Breath: meaning diminished, as in abate.
Praying Mantis: because of their prayer-like stance.
Fell Swoop: see above
Hammer and Tongs: ‘Tongs’ are used by a blacksmith, along with a hammer.
No Love Lost: though people are increasingly saying ‘no love loss’ according to the findings of the Oxford English Corpus.