Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
The confession box is open tonight. A good time to own up to a few sins. Until recently, been in the grip of two hidden eggcorns.
First, a venial sin. I had always thought that the phrase “fossil fuels” had something to do with coal and oil being cooked from the compressed detritus of ancient, fossilized forests. Not so, it appears. “Fossil” was adopted from the Old French fossile, which in turn was derived from the past participial stem of the Latin fodere, to dig. The French fossile and the English “fossil” referred in a generic way to things dug from the ground. Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of Britain’s Royal Society, used it in this sense when he wrote, in a 1668 letter to Robert Boyle, that “the fossils, most to be met with in the Contry of liege, are Cadmia, Alum, chalcanthum viride, ferrum, plumbum, and stibium.” In the 1700s, “fossil” was extended to cover the petrified remains of dead organisms that were quarried from the ground, an added meaning that eventually became the word’s primary meaning.
The term “fossil fuel,” as a name for coal, and later for oil, was in common use during the last half of the eighteenth century, long before the organic origin of coal was established. In for example, the theory that coal was “produced by the decomposition of the soft parts of organized bodies, which we find almost every where in the solid remains,” is cited as a conjecture and refuted. So the “fossil” at the coining of “fossil fuel” was at the older meaning of “something dug from the ground” and not the later meaning of “remnant of ancient organisms.”
My second sin—and probably a mortal one—involves the word “mammoth.” I thought that the extinct elephant relative, the wooly mammoth, was called that because it was, well, mammoth (The largest mammoths stood some four meters high at the shoulder and weighed around ten tons.). Turns out I had my cause and effect reversed. The adjective “mammoth,” meaning huge/large, is actually an adaptation of the term that was used to name the puzzling fossils that were being dug up in Siberia. John Simpson, until recently the chief editor of the OED, has on “Mammoth” that tells how a Siberian tribal word migrated into Russian and then into English. The wide publicity around an exhibition of Mammoth skeletons at the beginning of the 1800s led to the extension of the word, as a noun and adjective, to anything huge—a large round of cheese, a big hunk of veal, etc. The words “giant” and “monster,” notes Simpson, underwent the same sort of semantic widening.
It was at the height of the early craze for the new word that , hit on the idea of christening it “Mammoth Cave.” The naming had nothing to do with the presence of pachyderm bones, everything to do with the size of the cave (It is still the world’s largest known system of underground caves).
Such are my sins. Now for the sins of others. In my notebook are three words that may indicate attempts to import new meaning into old words.
One of them, like “mammoth” and “fossil fuel,” is a hidden eggcorn. “Undertaker” started out as a general term for someone who undertakes a task. By 1700, “undertaker” had picked up a more specific meaning—one who undertakes the task of burial. As the centuries passed, the specialized meaning gobbled up more and more of the semantic territory. How many modern English speakers, I wonder, overlooking the older, general sense of the term, understand the term as referring to a person who “takes you under?”
I also came across two curious misspellings: “stemulus” and “sufferage” in place of “stimulus” and “suffrage.” Could users of the alternate spellings be trying to insert the meanings of “stem” and “suffer” into words that do not contain them? Or do they just lack spelling chops?
Last edited by kem (2014-09-04 13:07:18)
Really interesting post all around, Kem. What surprises me is that mammoth and mammal are entirely unrelated, the first deriving from Old Vogul *mēmoŋt earth-horn and the second Latin. It is delicious to live in a world where people can believe that fossil mammoths emerge from underground because they live there, fossorial, like mammoth moles.
I think “sufferage” is just the spelling of a common mispronunciation. Compare this to “decathalon” and “athelete”. Both are common misspellings because of the way the words are frequently pronounced.