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Damp Squid: Hate Lists and Eggcorns

Today I’m bringing you a post written specially for OUPblog by Jeremy Butterfield, author of Damp Squid. In it he examines what people like and dislike about language, and how linguistic changes come about.

Speakers hold very strong views about what’s right and wrong, good and bad in language; and they are hugely creative with it, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally.

With regard [sic] to what’s good or bad, the media have pounced on a list of the ten most hated phrases and expressions in English. In pole [poll?] position comes “at the end of the day”; in the middle “I, personally”; and at the bottom “it’s not rocket science.”

But you can bet your bottom dollar* that everybody’s hate list would be different. The Washington Post books blog lists these uses, none of which are in my list: that said, indeed, stunning, walking the walk, talking the talk, and pro-active. While Lynne Truss wages war on profligate punctuation, William Safire deflates flapdoodle and gobbledegook. In Britain the Queen’s English Society laments that words “ain’t wot they used to be,” while the American Literary Council, with more imagination, continues to champion spelling reform.

As the Latin tag has it: “quot homines, tot sententiae”—there are as many opinions as there are men. But if I worked for the town council of Bournemouth, Britain, I would be in deep doo-doo for using such an elitist language as Latin at all. The council has outlawed a score of words, including via and vice versa, on the grounds that most people don’t study Latin these days. Other councils have banned French in lieu and vis-à-vis. Why stop at Latin and French? Most people don’t study German, Greek or Italian, so while we’re at it, why not proscribe words from those languages too?

Which leads me to ask: where do our linguistic hate lists come from? Are they passed on as cultural memes, or are they purely personal?

At the end of the day [sic], personally, I [sic] think they are both. As the song from South Pacific says: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…”, and people learn to hate these phrases—as they learn any prejudice—from family, teachers, peer groups and media. But others are individual, even idiosyncratic; and both types can be extremely irrational. When donning my linguist’s hat, I say there is no such thing as “good” and “bad” in language: using such words constitutes a major category error. Doffing my linguist’s bonnet, though, I want to scream when I hear another glib politician talking about “moving on” and “drawing lines” under scandals and disasters. But is that a linguistic judgement or a moral one?

The second aspect I mentioned is creativity. Possibly at least half our language consists of gobbets we endlessly recycle: if it didn’t, communication would be unbearably fatiguing. But that still gives us tremendous leeway to be creative. We can pun, not just for momentary amusement, but also to create new words which stand the test of time: doppelgoogler, fauxtography, churnalism. We can invent outrageous similes: as useful as discussing the odds on sunrise tomorrow/as a bus pass in the Mojave/ as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition.

People can also modify—subtly, or less subtly—some of the language gobbets they inherit. Take “damp squid” itself. Originally, something disappointing could be described as “a bit of a damp squib.” Compared to many idioms it is not old, the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dating back only to 1847. Now, a squib is a firework, and damp fireworks don’t ignite, whence the association with disappointment. Originally, the metaphor was “transparent”: it didn’t need interpretation. But nowadays most people have forgotten what a squib is, so they have to assimilate this unknown word to one they do know. Moreover, if they only ever hear the phrase, and never read it, it is easy to imagine how their ears replace squib with squid, and, hey presto, a new idiom is born. In the Corpus the original is still much more common, but on Google the newer version is in the majority.

If we change English in this way, we are indulging in “folk etymology”. Folk etymology is what happens when people alter words and phrases to make them fit their understanding of English. Classic examples are cockroach, bridegroom, and chaise lounge, which are now an accepted part of the language.

Presumably, such changes start individually somewhere—or possibly several people modify the word or phrase in the same way at around the same time. Individual changes of this kind are called “eggcorns”, from an erroneous spelling of acorn. For changes to be defined as “eggcorns”, they must make semantic and conceptual sense (otherwise they are just plain old malapropisms).

If you listen and watch out for them, you may be surprised. Some of my favourite eggcorns and folk etymologies are: to nip something in the butt, Jesus crisis (from a 3-year-old), escapegoat, to pass something with flying collars, post-dramatic stress disorder, and chickens coming home to roast.

*The Oxford Corpus tells me that “to bet your bottom dollar” is used much more in Britain than in the US, as I suspected.

Recent Comments

  1. c brown

    I note that these lists tend to discriminate against phrases just for being used often, but that seems like a marker for utility to me. Indees, that said, we need a paradigm shift toward proactively criticising mis-uses, like “I could care less”, or “… to no end” (rather than “no end”).
    At the end of the day, I personally think what matters should be clarity, not mere novelty. It’s not rocket science after all.

  2. Mark Thakkar

    You say that “on Google the newer version [‘damp squid’] is in the majority”. A quick Google gives 119,000 hits for ‘damp squib’ but only 14,400 for ‘damp squid’. Did you restrict your search in some way? (I’ve never heard ‘damp squid’, incidentally, and I’m surprised to read that “most people” don’t know what a squib is. Fireworks are still popular, aren’t they?)

  3. Jeremy Butterfield

    Hello, Mark

    Well I did my search from the UK, but it was on the whole web. Problem is, Google figures change all the time. But I’ve just checked, and squiD 1,160,000 is while squiB is 124,000.

    If I restrict my search to the UK, the respective figures are 55,300 and 42,900. I believe lots of people really don’t know what a squib is – I first read it as a child in Oscar Wilde’s “Remarkable Rocket” from his Fairy Tales, but hardly recall coming across it again outside the idiom. Certainly in Scotland most people know what a squib is, and perhaps that’s true of parts of the US as well.

  4. Mark Thakkar

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for your response. I’m afraid I can only replicate anything like your results by searching *without* using quotation marks to search for the phrase. Of course, one would expect many pages about squid to include the word ‘damp’ somewhere or other. But since the point is to check the use of the *phrase*, you need to include the quotation marks. In case I’m not being entirely clear, what you need to type into Google is not:

    damp squid

    but instead:

    “damp squid”

    Try that, and see what results you get.

  5. Graham Roberts


    I worked for OUP from 1981 until 1994; One of the first titles I was involved with was the “Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English”, which I thought was brilliant. English like what I spoke, with examples. Where else would you find the phrase “Don’t take your car to that garage, they made a balls-up of mine”? I was immediately smitten with words and explanations. Idioms such as this and Quotations go arm-in-arm, so to speak.

  6. greg p

    a couple of my favourite altered phrases are,
    “to all intensive purposes” and
    “one foul swoop”
    and I do like damp squid it reminds me of wet fish handshakes.

  7. Poacher79

    Personal likes and dislikes are – surprisingly – personal – if “compared to” makes my teeth ache – that’s my problem – I maintain my standards and don’t expect others to respect them.
    My own real nemesis is OUPs dictionaries based on a corpus – I’ve lived in France for ten years and speak pretty reasonable French – a relative kindly bought me the Oxford/Hachette French-English dictionary – this is based on a computer survey of the most commonly used words in French publications – including many examples of modern usage – DOH! logic error!! – I know the most commonly used words – I use them – but I have never found the uncommon word that I need to look-up in all the time I’ve had the dictionary

  8. Jeremy Butterfield

    Toark Thakkar

    Yes, you are absolutely right about the quotaion marks, Mark.

    But this is just one case out of hundreds. Here’s one I came across recently: try Googling “high gudgeon” versus “high dudgeon”.

    J – and no, most people don’t know what a squib is. You are in a fortunate minority.

  9. Mark Thakkar

    “High dudgeon”: 60,200 results
    “High gudgeon”: 142 results

    Most of the results for “high gudgeon” are either explicit puns about fish or references to gudgeon pins. The number of genuine mistakes is vanishingly small.

    Perhaps it would be a good idea for you to run all your examples through Google again using quotation marks, and filter out the false positives.

  10. Angus Walker

    Interesting post.

    I can see how some language changes come about. For example ‘croissant’ is the French for ‘crescent’, but in English it only has the sense of a crescent-shaped pastry. I have now started to hear people asking for a ‘chocolate croissant’ meaning a ‘pain au chocolat’, which is rectangular. In English, ‘croissant’ therefore appears to be in the process of calving from its mother iceberg of ‘crescent.

    ‘Brand new’ was originally ‘bran new’, and ‘rule the roost’ was originally ‘rule the roast’. No doubt people originally rued the incorrect usages that are now accepted.

    There is probably a well-worn path of (a) correct usage (b) some variant creeps in and annoys people (c) it sticks and is used more widely (d) descriptive rather than prescriptive dictionaries (which should they be?) start referring to it (e) the variant becomes correct.

    I’ve never heard anyone refer to a firework as a squib these days, which (Mark) is not the same as saying there aren’t any fireworks any more.

  11. LEN

    I’m surprised that (apparently) so few people know what squibs are these days – all you have to do is watch the “Making Of” featurette for a couple of major action movies, and you’re sure to hear the term used by the special effects guys. Or perhaps I’m just more of a movie nerd than I thought…

  12. Lee N.

    I’m surprised that (apparently) so few people know what squibs are these days – all you have to do is watch the “Making Of” featurette for a couple of major action movies, and you’re sure to hear the term used by the special effects guys. Or perhaps I’m just more of a movie nerd than I thought…

  13. Angus Walker

    I wonder how many of the ‘hundreds of examples’ and how much of the whole premise of the book is based on not understanding the use of quotation marks in Google!

  14. Mark K

    My favourite these days is the substitution of mute for moot, as it “It’s a mute point”. Often it is both!

  15. Jeanne Goessling

    Is “squib” British? I am very old (85), and have always taken an interest in words, but to me a squib is a short item in a newspaper, and what is being dicussed here is a firecracker.

  16. Mark K

    Jeanne: appears to be both according to the askoxford.com entry:
    1 a small firework that hisses before exploding. 2 a short piece of satirical writing.

  17. […] about their favourite subject: the rain. OUP UK Publicity Manager Juliet Evans has been speaking to Jeremy Butterfield, author of Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, about different ways we talk about rain, in […]

  18. Rob

    just finished the damp squid, funny read, it kept me going through university..

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