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Chris -- 2018-04-11

#1 2007-03-19 15:53:36

Registered: 2007-03-19
Posts: 2

Kyrgyzstan and bite the bullet: two hidden eggcorns?

First post, and I have two possible hidden eggcorns from my own experience. Anecdotal, and difficult to document, so perhaps unsuitable for the database, but worthy of consideration I think.

1. Kyrgyzstan/Kurdistan

Several years ago someone told me that the country spelt “Kyrgyzstan” was pronounced “Kurdistan”. I had forgotten this until recently when I was reading about eggcorns and simultaneously prompted to think about Kyrgyzstan. I realised that this was a hidden eggcorn, and the reasoning behind it seems pretty obvious. Kyrgyzstan isn’t a common topic on broadcast news in the West. It is likely that there are many people who have seen “Kyrgyzstan” in print in an atlas, and who frequently listen to TV and radio news programmes yet have never heard it spoken. On the other hand, the region of Kurdistan is a relatively much more frequent topic in the news, given its politically contentious status within the countries of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. So to someone with a reasonable awareness of the world, who has seen but never heard “Kyrgyzstan”, and heard (but possibly never seen) “Kurdistan”, it is a logical step to suppose that the spoken “Kurdistan” is the pronunciation of the written “Kyrgyzstan”. Given the boggling nature of the spelling, and awareness of other unusual place-name pronunciations, this step becomes even more understandable.

An example of the confusion on Usenet: … d0819f8155

2. Bite the bullet

I studied philosophy at university. A phrase which is popular in undergraduate philosophy discussions, perhaps even more so than in general academia, is “to bite the bullet”. By the end of my first year I was pretty adept at using it correctly in technical contexts. Just to clarify, the correct context is something like this. You have advanced a certain philosophical theory. Someone else raises a point which sits unhappily with that theory – not disproves it exactly, but entails some awkward results. For example, a utilitarian claims that the right thing to do is whatever results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The standard objection to utilitarianism asks what one should do if put in the position of having to choose between killing one person, and ten people being killed. The utilitarian seems forced to say that the right thing to do is to kill the one person, though this jars unpleasantly with most people’s gut moral feeling that killing is wrong. In this context, a philosopher has a choice: to argue against the point raised in objection, showing it to be either wrong or irrelevant; to modify his position in order to make it so; or to bite the bullet, to accept the unpleasant consequences and move on. For the utilitarian, biting the bullet would mean saying, yes, the right thing to do is to kill the one person.

However, it was during a discussion of philosopher’s cliches with another undergraduate that I was made embarrassingly aware that I was imagining the metaphor behind this phrase all wrong. The correct metaphor, as I understand it now, is of a soldier in battle about to undergo an emergency amputation without anaesthetic. The only thing he is given to focus his attention away from the excruciating pain is a bullet to bite down on. Hence the phrase implies accepting a horrible situation and moving on. I obviously hadn’t watched enough war films, since I had a completely different interpretation of the phrase. I had always thought of the old illusionists’ trick of appearing to catch a bullet between the teeth. This seemed to make sense to me: the bullet was the objection raised to your body of argument, which your opponent has just fired at you. He wants it to hit you square on, mortally wounding the theory. If you were to object to the objection, showing it to be false or irrelevant, you would be dodging the bullet. And the other option, of course, is to bite the bullet: catch it in your mouth, symbolically accepting the consequences within the framework of your theory.

It would be difficult to show that anyone else using the phrase imagines it this way, unless they’re explicitly explaining the metaphor.



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