Johnson

Death nails and foul swoops

Sometimes solecisms can reveal linguistic ingenuity

 




Jul 17th 2021 | words 887

  

 

ON JUNE 12TH The Economists pages featured an activist investor honing in on the dearth of energy experience on a companys board. A few readers honed in on a solecism: the original phrase is to home in on something, like the creatures that find their way back to their neststhat is, they homewith surprising precision.

 

Yet according to Google Books, honed in on is about three-quarters as common in published works as homed in on. Merriam-Webster, a dictionary publisher, considers hone in an established variant, even if home in is better (by virtue of being older, and so less likely to attract censure). What makes hone in so tempting?

 

 

 

In 2003 the linguists behind the Language Log blog coined the term eggcorn for a particular kind of mishearing of a word or phrase. There are other varieties of mishearings, but they are not eggcorns. A mondegreen is a nonsensical one, often of a song lyric. An elegiac tune with the line and laid him on the green was heard as and Lady Mondegreen, giving the phenomenon its name. A website called KissThisGuy.com (from a mishearing of excuse me while I kiss the sky) collects others.

 

A malapropism is another kind of misunderstandingattempting to use a posh word but choosing a similar-sounding term instead. It was named after Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridans play The Rivals of 1775; she reached for refined words and inevitably found the wrong one, saying things like the very pineapple of politeness for pinnacle. The song A Word a Day from Top Banana, a musical, features malapropisms in reverse. The singer, quizzed on the meaning of amphibious, defines it as someone who can use either hand.

 

The eggcorn, though, is more venerable. The word began as a misconstrual of acorn. Unlike a malapropism or mondegreen, the eggcorn has a logic that makes it alluring. Acorns and eggs have similar shapes, and both produce new life. Indeed, acorn may itself be an eggcorn; its original form, aecern, may have been gradually adapted by speakers who thought it was a kind of corn.

 

Hence the popularity of hone in. To home in on something is to gradually approach a target. To hone a blade is to gradually make it more suitable to your purpose. The overlapping meanings make hone in a tempting swap. There are so many sensible-seeming alterations of this sort that Chris Waigl, a geophysicist in Alaska, has collected 648 of them in her online Eggcorn Database.

 

Some eggcorns are especially enticing because they make more sense than the phrases they replace. Consider death nail, which is more plausible on its face than death knell. Nails go along with death (as in nail in the coffin), and some people may not know of any other kind of knell (originally the sound of a bell).

 

The substitution of a rarely used word with an everyday equivalent is the hallmark of many eggcorns. For instance, linguists invented code-switching to describe the practice of moving back and forth between two languages or dialects, often in one conversation or even sentence. It is a fascinating phenomenon with a clumsy name. When a reviewer for the Toronto Star, writing about the black characters in the film Moonlight, described their coat-switching, he arguably improved it.

 

So if you chuckle when you read the point is mute, in one foul swoop or to change tact, ask yourself whether you could give precise definitions of moot, fell or tack. The speakers replacing them with more common words are in a way the opposite of Mrs Malaprop; rather than trying to show off, they are often making opaque expressions simpler.

 

George Orwell once mocked tow the line for toe the line in a passage about people who use metaphors without thinking about them. He was criticising those who write automatically, stitching platitudes together without reflection. His advice to avoid clichs is always salutary; his injunction to think about what the words you use really mean is an even better one. But his judgment here was a little too harsh.

 

Tow the line was an eggcorn avant la lettre: if you obediently do your political partys bidding, you might just as easily pull a rope at their command as you would stand on a mark they have made on the ground. The people who reach for this seemingly jumbled phrase are thinkingand coming up with an expression that is clearer to them than the original. Eggcorns are often a sign not of idiocy but of ingenuity.

 

 

 






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Economist | Sometimes solecisms can reveal linguistic ingenuity

 

Johnson

Death nails and foul swoops

Sometimes solecisms can reveal linguistic ingenuity

 




Jul 17th 2021 | words 887

  

 

ON JUNE 12TH The Economists pages featured an activist investor honing in on the dearth of energy experience on a companys board. A few readers honed in on a solecism: the original phrase is to home in on something, like the creatures that find their way back to their neststhat is, they homewith surprising precision.

 

Yet according to Google Books, honed in on is about three-quarters as common in published works as homed in on. Merriam-Webster, a dictionary publisher, considers hone in an established variant, even if home in is better (by virtue of being older, and so less likely to attract censure). What makes hone in so tempting?

 

 

 

In 2003 the linguists behind the Language Log blog coined the term eggcorn for a particular kind of mishearing of a word or phrase. There are other varieties of mishearings, but they are not eggcorns. A mondegreen is a nonsensical one, often of a song lyric. An elegiac tune with the line and laid him on the green was heard as and Lady Mondegreen, giving the phenomenon its name. A website called KissThisGuy.com (from a mishearing of excuse me while I kiss the sky) collects others.

 

A malapropism is another kind of misunderstandingattempting to use a posh word but choosing a similar-sounding term instead. It was named after Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridans play The Rivals of 1775; she reached for refined words and inevitably found the wrong one, saying things like the very pineapple of politeness for pinnacle. The song A Word a Day from Top Banana, a musical, features malapropisms in reverse. The singer, quizzed on the meaning of amphibious, defines it as someone who can use either hand.

 

The eggcorn, though, is more venerable. The word began as a misconstrual of acorn. Unlike a malapropism or mondegreen, the eggcorn has a logic that makes it alluring. Acorns and eggs have similar shapes, and both produce new life. Indeed, acorn may itself be an eggcorn; its original form, aecern, may have been gradually adapted by speakers who thought it was a kind of corn.

 

Hence the popularity of hone in. To home in on something is to gradually approach a target. To hone a blade is to gradually make it more suitable to your purpose. The overlapping meanings make hone in a tempting swap. There are so many sensible-seeming alterations of this sort that Chris Waigl, a geophysicist in Alaska, has collected 648 of them in her online Eggcorn Database.

 

Some eggcorns are especially enticing because they make more sense than the phrases they replace. Consider death nail, which is more plausible on its face than death knell. Nails go along with death (as in nail in the coffin), and some people may not know of any other kind of knell (originally the sound of a bell).

 

The substitution of a rarely used word with an everyday equivalent is the hallmark of many eggcorns. For instance, linguists invented code-switching to describe the practice of moving back and forth between two languages or dialects, often in one conversation or even sentence. It is a fascinating phenomenon with a clumsy name. When a reviewer for the Toronto Star, writing about the black characters in the film Moonlight, described their coat-switching, he arguably improved it.

 

So if you chuckle when you read the point is mute, in one foul swoop or to change tact, ask yourself whether you could give precise definitions of moot, fell or tack. The speakers replacing them with more common words are in a way the opposite of Mrs Malaprop; rather than trying to show off, they are often making opaque expressions simpler.

 

George Orwell once mocked tow the line for toe the line in a passage about people who use metaphors without thinking about them. He was criticising those who write automatically, stitching platitudes together without reflection. His advice to avoid clichs is always salutary; his injunction to think about what the words you use really mean is an even better one. But his judgment here was a little too harsh.

 

Tow the line was an eggcorn avant la lettre: if you obediently do your political partys bidding, you might just as easily pull a rope at their command as you would stand on a mark they have made on the ground. The people who reach for this seemingly jumbled phrase are thinkingand coming up with an expression that is clearer to them than the original. Eggcorns are often a sign not of idiocy but of ingenuity.

 

 

 






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