Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
From an article in the Huffington Post (On the Polanski Affair, by Bernard-Henri Lévy):
Sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl is obviously a serious crime.
And being an artistic genius never constituted, for any crime, an attenuating circumstance.
For once this seems an exceedingly unambiguous example of an eggcorn. The usual “extenuating circumstances” has been poorly heard by the author who chose to substitute the near-sounding “attenuating” for “extenuating”. It’s a surprisingly sensible, if incorrect, formulation, this idea of a circumstance (only one, oddly) that reduces somehow, or “attenuates”, the severity of the original crime he refers to. One also notes the curious use of the singular for “circumstance”, when the standard formula always refers to “extenuating circumstanceS”.
This is the first time I’ve ever noticed this particular eggcorn, yet google claims 30,000+ entries for “attenuating circumstances”, There are quite a few examples of “attenuated circumstances” as well. Searching for “attenuating extenuating” seems to produce a number of entries claiming that “attenuating circumstances” is a synonym for “extenuating circumstances”. Perhaps the eggcorn is older than I realized at the beginning, or possibly I’ve been trapped by a regional variant, but it’s still true that this is the first time I’ve ever seen “attenuating” in this phrase.
Welcome to the forum, JNS. I think a lot of people have difficulty in discriminating between these two words, and with ‘attenuating’ being probably the more obscure of the two it defies the usual eggcornish substitution of a familiar term for an unfamiliar one. The other, bigger problem is that there is no real change of imagery as they both derive from the Latin tenuare, “make thin”, so I’m afraid what you have seems more malapropism than eggcorn.
It may indeed be a mere malapropism—I’m so dejected!—but I still found it startling. It’s hard for me to judge whether “attenuating” is the more obscure; is “extenuate” ever used except in the phrase “extenuating circumstances”? On the other hand, I’m a physicist and “attenuate” is quite familiar to me. I wouldn’t say their senses are interchangeable, but they both certainly serve well enough in the “circumstances” setting to convey similar meanings.
Thanks for the note of welcome, too.
Last edited by JNShaumeyer (2009-10-06 20:04:37)
It’s eggcornish for me. Etymologically, you’re right, Peter, it’s from the same root. But “extenuate” does not bring an image of thinning to me, while “attenuate” does. (“Extenuate” links rather with meanings/words like “mitigate” and “exculpate”.)
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
“Attenuating circumstances” appears to be well established in technical discourse in law, politics, and philosophy in English. Books.google.com has 100s of ughits, and most of them don’t look like errors. At first glance, the meaning seems pretty close to “extenuating circumstances,” but there might well be an important distinction in there somewhere.
French and Spanish seem to use “circonstances attenuantes” and “circunstancias atenuantes,” respectively. I wonder whether the technical usage in English isn’t a calque on the French term. And then there’s the possibility that some of the uses in English on the Web are the work of NNS’s making a reasonable guess about the English equivalent.
Of course, we’d probably be finding examples of “attenuating circumstances” even if it weren’t already an established phrase in certain attenuated circumstances.