shuffle off this mortal coil

Classification: English – hidden – citational

Spotted in the wild:

  • As we shuffle on and off this mortal coil (little omlet, folks) in a big rush, they stay still as they can; each day barely a breath. (link)
  • Mantel’s portraits of the two leading characters as well as those of the supporting cast—both on and off this mortal coil—are sharply drawn. (Holtzbrinck Publishers, book review)
  • It has come to my attention that your longtime movie-reviewing companion Gene Siskel has shuffled off of this mortal coil and made his way to that Big Comfy Multiplex in the sky. (, 20 October 2003)
  • Then, if that game prematurely shuffles off of its mortal coil… You have the honors of playing Zombies Ate my Neighbors! (PlanetBlack&White forum, November 15, 2002)
  • The recent ill health of Pope John Paul II has resulted in a news story courtesy of the Chicago Tribune on the actions of the various networks in preparation for the Pope’s eventual shuffle off of this mortal coil. (Ramblings of a Wayward Code Slave, blog entry, February 10, 2005)

Analyzed or reported by:

In her Boston Globe column _The Word_ of October 9, 2005, Jan Freeman reflects on what Arnold Zwicky has called the Recency Illusion: the idea that if you’ve noticed some non-standard or uncommon bit of language only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently (see Arnold Zwicky’s Language Log articles here and here). As an example, she quotes a particular understanding of _shuffle off this mortal coil_, which is in effect a hidden eggcorn:

> The bait was a quotation, in a New York Times book review, from Greg Critser’s “Generation Rx,” saying that pharmaceuticals now promise “everything from guarding us against our excesses of drink, food and tobacco … to extending our very time on this mortal coil.”
> “On this mortal coil?” But when Hamlet speculates about having “shuffled off this mortal coil,” in what must be Shakespeare’s most-quoted speech, we all know he’s not talking about a Savion Glover move-don’t we? “Shuffle off” means “get rid of, dispose of,” says the OED, and “mortal coil” means “the bustle or turmoil of this mortal life.”
> So was Critser’s misunderstanding a new one? Of course not. To judge by Google hits, hundreds of people think “shuffling off this mortal coil” involves going somewhere on foot. Even in edited sources, people have been getting it wrong for nearly 20 years.

The eggcorn relies on an interpretation of _shuffle_ as “move or walk in a sliding dragging manner without lifting the feet” (Where did he shuffle? Off this mortal coil.) instead of the verb-plus-particle _shuffle off_ “get rid of, dispose of” (What did he shuffle off? This mortal coil.)

For hidden eggcorns, which do not involve a change in spelling, we often need indirect evidence of the writers’ understanding of the expressions they use. This can come in the form of examples that use _on and off this mortal coil_, the double preposition _off of_, or synonyms of _shuffle_, such as in the following examples:

* I suppose if I had to stagger off of this mortal coil, “beer potomania” wouldn’t be such a bad way to go (compared to most of the other diseases in this book). (Amazon book review)
* Tell me something - does he get to sleep with Elizabeth Shue before he lurches off this mortal coil? (Barry Glendenning, Guardian Unlimited Football, June 20, 2004 )
* There are numerous surveys that suggest that women who live alone spend their time skipping gaily through the tulips and sipping at crystal streams of joie de vivre until they eventually slip off this mortal coil with a gentle sigh of satisfaction between snow-white linen sheets, while men forget how to wash, walk and talk and are eventually killed by MRSA from their own underpants and expire in a sticky heap of jazz mags and burger buns. (Lucy Mangan, Guardian Unlimited, March 2, 2005)

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/10/10 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by little america , 2005/10/26 at 8:27 pm

    Not to mention shuttle off this mortal coil. Because it’s too far to walk, presumably.

  2. 2

    Commentary by mark siegeltuch , 2005/11/21 at 11:38 pm

    The mortal coil is not the bustle or turmoil of life. It is the very bond of life, which keeps us alive and which is dissolved (untied, removed, shuffled off) at death. John Donne calls it a “subtle knot”. The image is found throughout Western literature, from the Old Testament to Sophocles, and is a rhetorical commonplace. It is found in many other cultures as well and must be very old. R.B. Onians discussed this “figure of thought” in his fascinating work, The Origins of European Thought.

  3. 3

    Commentary by Liz , 2006/04/11 at 10:22 pm

    I hadn’t actually realized that about this phrase, and was always sort of pleased by the mental image of Hamlet shuffling around a giant Slinky. I suppose I’ll have to stop giggling during soliloquies now.

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