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Chris -- 2018-04-11

#1 2016-03-31 14:10:53

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2659

in petto (hidden eggcorn)

Edgar Allen Poe once got caught in a hidden eggcorn, the eggcorn-like reading of an etymologically unjust word into another. In his humorous essay on diddling (swindling), he says that “a diddler may thus be regarded as a banker in petto…, the one is to the other … as a mastodon to a mouse.”

In petto, which comes from an Italian phrase for “in the heart,” means “secretly.” The phrase in petto and its Latin version, in pectore, were classically applied to the ecclesiastical situation in which the names of cardinals were not published at the time of their appointment out of concern that the publicity might endanger the lives or ministry of the newly elevated. This church meaning perhaps seeded, but certainly popularized, the phrase in petto in the languages of Europe.

In the mid 1800s, about the time of Poe’s essay, English speakers, apparently confusing the Italian word petto with the French petit, and perhaps blending in a bit of in parvo, began to use the phrase in petto with the meaning “in the small.” The switch was of enough concern to rate a handslap in the “Foreign dangers” entry of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1926). In Bryan Garner’s more modern guide (Garner’s Modern American Usage), in contrast, the misunderstanding of in petto does not rate a mention. Possibly Fowler’s admonitions had succeeded in patching the dike. More likely, the omission in Garner’s guide reflects an overall decline in the usage of in petto in English sources.

Hatching new language, one eggcorn at a time.



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