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#1 2014-09-02 15:56:31

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2162

fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

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 the 1818 second American edition of Nicholson’s British Encyclopedia, 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 a fascinating explanation of the OED entry 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 entrepreneurs in Kentucky, trying to draw attention to an extensive cave system in some Kentucky limestone formations, 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, I think, 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 (2014-12-19 18:03:29)

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#2 2014-09-04 10:49:54

David Bird
Eggcornista
From: Montréal, QC
Registered: 2009-07-28
Posts: 1204

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

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.

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#3 2014-09-11 23:27:18

yanogator
Eggcornista
Registered: 2007-06-08
Posts: 71

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

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.

Bruce

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#4 2014-11-11 18:19:19

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 657

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

yanogator wrote:

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.

Bruce, you may be right in many (most?) cases, but I see a strong likelihood of eggcornish meaning-confusion here. Consider:

Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of the heavens.”

Here, “suffer” means to allow, and this archaic meaning is familiar to probably hundreds of millions of people (it’s a very well-known Bible quote). Allowing women the vote is a clear connection. And when we add in possible acknowledgement of the considerable suffering attendant upon being disenfranchised, and/or the suffering visited upon suffrage activists, we get a pretty compelling case for eggcornicity, I think.

And that’s not even counting this “evidence”:

Is it called SUFFERage because everyone has to suffer now that womens have rights? LOL!!?
Q&A site

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#5 2014-12-16 13:26:33

AdamVero
Eggcornista
From: Leeds, UK
Registered: 2007-09-04
Posts: 66
Website

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

I admit to misunderstanding the derivation of fossil fuels too. Although I kind of knew the fuels were not formed from fossils (ie bones or shells of dead creatures) but more often from plant matter. I had it in my head more like “fuels formed underground over thousands of years from dead things, just as fossils are formed in the same way”.
Seeing that “fossil” is really being used here as an adjective rather than a noun-modifier makes it clear.

I actually think many people, far from understanding the archaic meaning of “suffer” in the biblical phrase quoted, are instead baffled and not really sure what is meant by it. I know I used to have some confusion here – is Jesus saying “let your children come to me, even though their absence makes you suffer” (ie because I would miss my kids)? While I love some of the language of the King James Bible for its richness, I do wonder if it helps people to understand the message clearly (not that I mind, being a heathen myself).


Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will buy a ridiculous hat – Scott Adams (author of Dilbert)
Build a man a fire and he will be warm for a day; set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life – Terry Pratchett
http://blog.meteorit.co.uk

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#6 2014-12-16 23:49:37

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1796
Website

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

While I love some of the language of the King James Bible for its richness, I do wonder if it helps people to understand the message clearly (not that I mind, being a heathen myself).

It doesn’t. It’s not quite as bad as Spanish speakers trying to understand the Vulgate, but it’s heading that way. Really the miracle is that it (and Shakespeare and other texts from that era) still communicates as well as it does.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#7 2014-12-17 06:03:14

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2162

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

Really the miracle is that it (and Shakespeare and other texts from that era) still communicates as well as it does.

The problem with evaluating the KJ Bible as a translation is that English is not, in this case, an independent variable. Any more than German is independent of Luther’s translation of the Bible. The KJB and Shakespeare’s plays still seem accessible to English speakers because the evolution of English slows down in their vicinity.

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#8 2014-12-17 22:57:58

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1796
Website

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

the evolution of English slows down in their vicinity.

Probably in the vicinity of fairly widespread literacy and the proliferation of books through printing. In languages without those features the evolution is liable to be much more rapid.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#9 2014-12-18 18:23:32

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2162

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

The topic of language evolution has been on my mind lately. Books on language, I’ve noticed, devote a fair amount of space to the issue of how new words come into existence. Almost nobody talks about what keeps words from disappearing. Print technology is a biggie, of course, and is sometimes mentioned, but it’s a technology. Artifacts have little meaning outside of artificers. Social memes offer better explanations. A broad search for mudbanks in the river of language change might mention:

(1) the dominance of English as a world language (the larger the river, the slower it flows),

(2) the increase in human longevity (grandparents have more time to pass on their language habits),

(3) golden oldies programming (at any given time, 10% of Canadian teens who are listening to the radio are tuned in to oldies programming),

(4) the 40-years-and-running craze for dungeon and dragons themes in games and movies (The Game of Thrones has, for better or worse, rescued “smallclothes” from the clothes hamper of history)

(5) changes in child rearing habits, including the nightly reading/telling of multiple bedtime stories that include fairy tales with archaic language.

(6) the craze for movie Westerns in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, BBC costume dramas since the 1980s,

(7) the persistence of Shakespeare in English language curricula,

(8) the spread of Evangelical religion and the preference of Evangelicals (at least until the 1970s) for the KJV.

Last edited by kem (2014-12-19 18:00:51)

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#10 2014-12-19 01:46:10

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1796
Website

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

Entirely right.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#11 2014-12-19 14:53:49

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1796
Website

Re: fossil fuels, mammoth, undertaker

As part of (1), the larger the river the more backwaters there will be (little sub-communities of speakers still connected to the main current) where old forms may survive and have some hope of again achieving wide currency years or even generations later. How often have we (we in this group more than the general run of the population, but they too) heard some phrase or usage that grabbed our goat and thought, sometimes even consciously, hey, I’ll use that one! Something already built to fit beautifully in the language has a big advantage over a random new structure.
.
An unfortunate (to my mind) side-effect of a lot of modern disaffection for and disengagement from traditional values is the loss of contact with historically rich sources of well-constructed language. (I’m thinking of the repugnance much modern education has for the elitist “read the classics” mindset, or the distaste evinced by many for anything that smacks of Christian ideas.) It remains to be seen if the likes of Monty Python, Star Wars and Roberta Menchú will prove to be similarly fruitful and long-lasting sources of widely recognized and appreciated ways of speaking. But the good thing is that there are enough of us that, in isolated pockets, a lot of what we have will still be preserved.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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