So wrong it’s right

The ‘eggcorn’ has its day

Over the past 10 days, language bloggers have been exchanging virtual high-fives at the news of an honor bestowed on one of their coinages. In its most recent quarterly update, the Oxford English Dictionary Online announced that its word-hoard now includes the shiny new term eggcorn.

An eggcorn, as regular readers of this column may recall, is — well, here’s the official new definition: “an alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.” If you write “let’s nip it in the butt” (instead of “bud”) or “to the manor born” (instead of “manner”), you’re using an eggcorn.

The term derives from “egg corn” as a substitution for “acorn,” whose earliest appearance comes in an 1844 letter from an American frontiersman: “I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I can not get her and I hop to help you eat some of it soon.”

Why would eggcorn (as we now spell it) replace acorn in the writer’s lexicon? As the OED editors comment, “acorns are, after all, seeds which are somewhat egg-shaped, and in many dialects the formations acorn and eggcorn sound very similar.” (And, like corn kernels, acorns can be ground into meal or flour.) This coinage came to the attention of the linguists blogging at Language Log in 2003, and at the suggestion of Geoffrey Pullum, one of the site’s founders, it was adopted as the term for all such expressions.

Eggcorns needed their own label, the Language Loggers decided, because they were mistakes of a distinct sort — variants on the traditional phrasing, but ones that still made at least a bit of sense. “Nip it in the bud,” for instance, is a horticultural metaphor, perhaps not so widely understood as it once was; the newer “nip it in the butt” describes a different strategy for getting rid of some unwelcome visitation, but it’s not illogical. Hamlet said he was “to the manner born,” but the modern alteration, “to the manor born,” is also a useful formula.

And because they make sense, eggcorns are interesting in a way that mere disfluencies and malapropisms are not: They show our minds at work on the language, reshaping an opaque phrase into something more plausible. They’re tiny linguistic treasures, pearls of imagination created by clothing an unfamiliar usage in a more recognizable costume.

Even before the eggcorn era, most of us had heard (or experienced) pop-song versions of the phenomenon, like “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” (for Jimi Hendrix’s “kiss the sky” line), but these have had their own label, mondegreen, for more than half a century. The word was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright, in commemoration of her mishearing of a Scottish ballad: “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray/ And laid him on the green,” went the lament, but Wright thought the villains had slain the earl “and Lady Mondegreen.”

Then there are malapropisms, word substitutions that sound similar but make no sense at all. They’re named for Mrs. Malaprop, a character in the 1775 play “The Rivals,” whose childrearing philosophy illustrates her vocabulary problem: “I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning….I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.”

And when the misconceived word or expression has spread so widely that we all use it, it’s a folk etymology — or, to most of us, just another word. Bridegroom, hangnail, Jerusalem artichoke — all started out as mistakes.

But we no longer beat ourselves up because our forebears substituted groom for the Old English guma (“man”), or modified agnail (“painful nail”) into hangnail, or reshaped girasole (“sunflower” in Italian) into the more familiar Jerusalem.

The border between these folk-etymologized words, blessed by history and usage, and the newer eggcorns is fuzzy, and there’s been some debate already at the American Dialect Society’s listserv, ADS-L, about whether the distinction is real. Probably there is no bright line; to me, “you’ve got another thing coming” and “wile away the hours” are eggcorns — recent reshapings of expressions I learned as “another think” and “while away” — but to you they may be normal.

But we face the same problem in deciding which senses are valid for everyday, non-eggcornish words. When does nonplussed for “unfazed” or enormity for “hugeness” become the standard sense? We can only wait and see; the variants may duke it out for decades, but if a change takes hold, the battle will one day be forgotten.

The little eggcorn is in the same situation: It’s struggling to overcome its mixed-up heritage and grow into the kind of respectable adulthood enjoyed by the Jerusalem artichoke. We’re not obliged to help it along, but while it’s here, we might as well enjoy its wacky poetry.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).  

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/26/so_wrong_its_right

Uncommon knowledge

A surprise benefit of minimum wage

The minimum wage has been politically controversial for most of the last century, even though it affects a marginal share of the labor force and evidence of significant job loss is inconclusive. Now one economist would like us to consider another effect of the minimum wage: finishing high school. By curtailing low-wage/low-skill jobs, the minimum wage motivates young people to stay in school and become skilled. This effect then generates what the author calls an “educational cascade” by setting an example for the upcoming class of students. He estimates that the average male born in 1951 gained 0.2 years — and the average male born in 1986 gained 0.7 years — of high school due to the cumulative effect of the minimum wage.

Sutch, R., “The Unexpected Long-Run Impact of the Minimum Wage: An Educational Cascade,” National Bureau of Economic Research (September 2010).

Bearing false witness

False confessions and false eyewitness testimony are never-ending challenges for the judicial process. Although coercive interrogation is blamed in many of these situations, new research illustrates just how little coercion is needed. In an experiment, people played a quiz game for money. Later, they were told that the person who had sat next to them during the game was suspected of cheating. They were shown a 15-second video clip of the person sitting next to them cheating, even though the video clip was doctored and no cheating actually happened. They were asked to sign a witness statement against the cheater, but they were explicitly told not to sign if they hadn’t directly witnessed the cheating, aside from seeing it in the video. Nevertheless, almost half of those who saw the video signed the statement. Some of those who signed the statement even volunteered additional incriminating information.

Wade, K. et al., “Can Fabricated Evidence Induce False Eyewitness Testimony?” Applied Cognitive Psychology (October 2010).

The cure for sadness: pain

For most people, pain is not fun. However, a recent study finds that, when you’re not having fun, pain can help. Several hundred people were tested to see how much pain — in the form of increasing pressure or heat applied to their hands — they could tolerate. Not surprisingly, people reported being less happy after the experiment. But less happy is not necessarily the same as more unhappy. Indeed, negative emotions were also attenuated after the experiment, especially for women and people with more sensitive emotions. In other words, physical pain helped dull emotional pain.

Bresin, K. et al., “No Pain, No Change: Reductions in Prior Negative Affect following Physical Pain,” Motivation and Emotion (September 2010).

That reminds me of…me!

In a series of experiments, researchers have transformed Descartes’s famous phrase (“I think, therefore I am”) into something like this: “I am reminded of myself, therefore I will think.” People presented with a resume or product paid more attention to it if it happened to have a name similar to their own. As a result of this increased attention, a high-quality resume or product got a boost, while a low-quality resume or product was further handicapped. However, in a strange twist, people who sat in front of a mirror while evaluating a product exhibited the opposite effect: Quality didn’t matter for a product with a similar name but did matter otherwise. The authors speculate that too much self-referential thinking overloads one’s ability to think objectively.

Howard, D. & Kerin, R., “The Effects of Name Similarity on Message Processing and Persuasion,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Defensive sleeping

The odds that you’ll need to fend off an attacker entering your bedroom at night are pretty small. Yet, according to a recent study, our evolutionary heritage — formed when we had to survive sleeping outdoors — instills a strong preference for bedrooms designed less by the principles of Architectural Digest than by those of “Home Alone” or “Panic Room.” When shown a floor plan for a simple rectangular bedroom and asked to arrange the furniture, most people positioned the bed so that it faced the door. They also positioned the bed on the side of the room behind the door as it would be opening, and as far back from the door as possible, a position that would seem to give the occupant the most time to respond. If the floor plan included a window on the opposite side of the room from the door, people were inclined to move the bed away from the window, too.

Spörrle, M. & Stich, J., “Sleeping in Safe Places: An Experimental Investigation of Human Sleeping Place Preferences from an Evolutionary Perspective,” Evolutionary Psychology (August 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/26/a_surprise_benefit_of_minimum_wage/

‘Busted’

Randy Britton e-mails: “I’ve noticed in much of the coverage of the BP oil spill that the press has taken to calling the oil well ‘busted.’ Since when is ‘busted’ the proper way to describe a broken oil well?  It seems very colloquial and not a form I would expect to see in proper journalistic forums.”

Even now that BP’s troubled oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is being permanently sealed, news reports continue to refer to the “busted well,” particularly wire services like the Associated Press and AFP. Reuters was an early adopter, reporting on efforts to contain the “busted well” on May 3. Alternatively, busted has modified oil rig, or just plain rig. A database search of coverage of the BP spill finds the first recorded use of busted came nine days into the crisis on April 29, when the MSNBC host Ed Schultz said, “The busted rig is leaking — get this — 200,000 gallons of oil a day.”

Is busted overly informal for journalists? The verb bust certainly has colloquial roots, beginning its life on the American scene as a folksy variant of burst. (The same dropping of the “r” turned curse into cuss, horse into hoss and parcel into passel.) Building on earlier use as a noun, bust busted out as a verb as early as 1806, when Meriwether Lewis, while on his famous expedition with William Clark, wrote in his journal, “Windsor busted his rifle near the muzzle.” Since then, bust has worked its way into a wide variety of American expressions.

Bust runs the gamut from slang to standard,” explain David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf in their book “America in So Many Words.” “When it is used to mean ‘to explode or fall apart or be arrested,’ bust is generally slang. In the sense of failing (especially financially) it is informal, as busting the bank in gambling lingo, while in the specialized sense of taming a horse it is standard, the only way to say busting a bronco.

Despite its potential slanginess, busted is “not actually forbidden” in the news media, as the Boston Globe language columnist Jan Freeman wrote in August. Indeed, reporters often latch onto the occasional colloquialism that seems particularly expressive, and in this case, Freeman surmises they were drawn to the term’s “criminal-cowboy-macho connotations.”

Regardless of the reasons for its current vogue, it’s notable that busted was rarely relied on by the press to describe stricken oil wells before the BP disaster — even in incidents that were highly similar, such as the 1979 blowout of the Ixtoc I well in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the precursors I found come from more literary sources. It was appropriate, for instance, in some light verse by J.W. Foley published in The New York Times in 1904:

Dear friend, there’s a question I’d like to ask you,
(Your pardon I crave if it vexes)
Have you ever invested a hundred or two
In an oil well somewhere down in Texas?
Have you ridden in autos (I mean in your mind),

With the profits you honestly trusted
Would flow from your venture in oil stocks — to find
That the oil well was hopelessly busted?

I can’t find fault in reporters drawing on the rich history of bust and busted in American English to add a little extra oomph to their dispatches from the gulf. Calling the well busted does evoke a looser, wilder state of disrepair than broken, or the more technically accurate blown-out. But after many months of news coverage, the phrase “busted well” has now turned into little more than a cliché. That’s a far worse journalistic offense than a bit of well-placed slang.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/magazine/26onlanguage.html