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Chris -- 2018-04-11

#1 2008-09-09 21:52:15

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2598

foister upon << foster upon << foist upon

Eggcorns are one-way events. The acorn leads to the eggcorn, but eggcorns don’t usually turn back into acorns. Foster/foist(er) may be the rare case of a (partially) two-way eggcorn.

In the first book published by the English essayist Daniel Defoe (Essay Upon Projects, 1692/3) the author presents a proposal for a royal academy that would perform the same offices for the English language that the French Academy did for the French language. He writes:

The work of this society should be to encourage polite learning, to polish and refine the English tongue, and advance the so much neglected faculty of correct language, to establish purity and propriety of style, and to purge it from all the irregular additions that ignorance and affectation have introduced; and all those innovations in speech, if I may call them such, which some dogmatic writers have the confidence to foster upon their native language, as if their authority were sufficient to make their own fancy legitimate.

To describe what language pundits are doing to the English tongue Defoe employs the metaphor “to foster on.” His metaphor is borrowed from farm life. A lamb with no mother or a lamb whose mother could not suckle it might be “fostered on” another ewe with enough milk to feed an extra mouth. Ewes do not do accept foster lambs with great enthusiasm. They often have to be tied up and forced to nurse the strange lamb until their maternal instincts kick in. The metaphor conveys Dafoe’s meaning with great vividness. Dogmatic writers, he says, compel the ewe of English to take on and nurture lambs (words and expressions) that really don’t belong in language. If the writers act with enough authority, the old ewe gives in. The new academy, he hopes, will reverse this foolish fostering and banish the illegitimate sucklers.

A metaphor this good is worth keeping. And it appears at first glance that we have kept it. The metaphor “foster on” is still used in English. It seems, though, that we have changed our mind about the preposition that follows it. Modern English prefers the phrase “foster upon.” Here, for example, is a testimony given by a minister of religion to a Washington, DC, city council:

“Among the ramifications are the outright lies that the gay and lesbian movement seeks to foster upon an unprotected and uninformed multitude of our citizens, particularly the young and illiterate.” ( … mony12.htm)

Another one: a web comment on the online version of a newspaper op-ed piece:

“Get a clue lefty. This isn’t about abortion its about the hatred you and your ilk foster upon the innocents of this nation in the name of religiosity.” (

Dozens of web pages use “foster upon” in the same sense as the two examples just given.

But wait a moment. Is the original metaphor really retained in these examples? Not many speakers of English are familiar enough with livestock to know about fostering farm animals. And why the switch to the preposition “upon?” None of the historical OED citations for “foster” join it to “upon.” “Foster upon” seems, in fact, to be a relatively new coinage. Could it be that the writers on these web pages are confusing “foster upon” with another phrase?

The phrase “father upon” comes to mind. It sounds like “foster on” and its meaning is similar. “Father upon” means to “to put upon, impose upon, attach to.” The skeptic Thomas Paine, for example, writes in the Age of Reason that “either, then, the men called apostles are impostors, or the books ascribed to them [have] been written by other persons and fathered upon them….” A few minutes of browsing through the Google citations of “fathered upon” reveals, however, that almost all the cited documents are from the nineteenth century or earlier. The post-1990 Corpus of Contemporary English does not list the phrase “fathered on.” Any influence, therefore, of “father upon” on “foster upon” would have to have happened a long time ago.

A more probable influence on “foster upon” is the phrase “foist upon.” “To foist,” says the OED, is “to palm or put off; to fasten or fix stealthily or unwarrantably on or upon.” Again, we note, the meaning is quite similar to “foster on.” “Foisting into” and “foisting upon” have been common idioms since the sixteenth century, and, unlike “father upon,” they are still reasonably popular-the COCA database records several hundred examples of foisting on/into/off/upon. When I go through the web pages that use the phrase “foster upon,” I find that substituting “foist upon” covers the meaning quite well. Perhaps “foster upon” gets its “upon” when “foster” eggcorns “foist” in the phrase “foist upon.” The substitution seems to respect the less-familiar-to-more-familiar rule. “Foist” is an old cognate of “fist” that may have entered English through a swindler’s trick (i.e., palming a die or coin). It is not a well-known word outside of the idiom “foist on/off/upon.” The word “foster,” in contrast, has been in continuous use in English as a verb (to nurture growth) and an adjective (to provide parental care).

The one, niggling problem with this thesis is the dissimilarity in the two sounds. “Foist” lacks the second syllable vowel of “fos-ter.” The assumption that “foster” has eggcorned “foist” would have been more secure if the eggcorned phrase were “foister upon.” There is, unfortunately, no such phrase. According to the dictionaries “foister” is not a verb. It is only a noun, referring to one who foists. When, however, the presumably nonsense phrase “foister upon” is submitted to Google, we get a surprise. There are at least hundred unique pages with the phrase ‘foister upon” or “foister on.” Here, for example, is a web comment on the article “Hacking your TiVo:”

“That “lifetime” subscription is the biggest rip-off a company can foister upon it’s customers. ” ( … 42708&pg=2)

Apparently people are not reading their dictionaries. A large segment of the web community thinks that “foister” is a verb.

What is going on here? My guess is that “foster” first eggcorned “foist” in the phrase “foist upon” and then “foster” was itself transformed into “foister,” a nonexistent cognate of “foist,” by speakers who knew that “foster” wasn’t right but who didn’t know the original term well enough to restore it correctly.

What goes around comes around.

Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.



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