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Chris -- 2015-05-30

#1 2009-07-04 16:49:39

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2330

infantesimal << infinitesmal

In 2007 a person with the handle “ArtifexAmando” visited this forum for a single thread. I’m sorry Artifex did not return: s/he left us with hope that we might one day have a Swedish word for “eggcorn.” In addition, the eggcorn discussed in ArtifexAmando’s post was one of the best ones we have seen:“infinitesmall” for “infinitesimal.”

When you stop to think about it, “infinitesimal” is a curious word to describe something extremely small. It is built from the word “infinite,” whose meaning points us in the opposite direction, sizewise. In the OED’s first citation for the word (from the 1650s), “infinitesimal” refers to the infiniteth ordinal number, so at the beginning of the word’s career, at least, semantics and etymology were in harmony. But in the writings of mathematicians the word soon became associated with abstruse discussions about the reciprocals of the ordinals, the fractions of one with increasingly large denominators (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5…1/1001, etc). As the denominator gets larger the value of the fraction gets smaller. This context became the basis for a metaphorical extension of the word into its current meaning: to be infinitesimal is to be minute, insignificant, immeasurably tiny.

Another permutation of “infinitesimal” may also be an eggcorn. A number of web pages record the spelling “infantesimal.” The new word points in the right direction: an infant is release 1.0 of a human. A few web pages seem to have confused the word “infantesimal” with “infantile,” but most instances of “infantesimal” occur in contexts that would fit the meaning of “infinitesimal.” “Infantesimal” drops a syllable: it is possible that the pathway to “infantesimal” lies through “infintesimal,” a common misspelling/mispronunciation of “infinitesimal.”

Frequency of “infantesimal:” about 100 Google ughits. Examples:

Post in a car forum: “it will go down by some infantesimal amount each year”

Political blog entry: “Perhaps we could have an account at YouTube which we could feed to allow us to click on a pay-per-view link, but the fees would need to be so infantesimal that one wonders whether the effort would be worth it. ”

Post in the Babycenter Community: “it does not mean the baby is too—they get only a small/ infantesimal amount of what the mother does.”



#2 2009-07-04 18:57:25

From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: infantesimal << infinitesmal

My view of “infinitesmall” hasn’t changed since I responded to ArtifexAmando’s original post. If it’s an eggcorn, it is indeed a great eggcorn. But I’m not fully convinced. At the very least, I think it’d be hard for most adult native speakers of English to produce “infinite-small”—that pronunciation is just too far from how people usually say the word. Perhaps it could be an “eye eggcorn” for non-native speakers, however.

I think your own contribution—“infantesimal”—is much more likely. I pronounce “infant” “in-fint” and “infinitesimal” “in-fin-tess-muhl,” so the fit seems pretty good to me. A great find, in my view—your third citation is particularly cool.

I agree with you that “infintesmal/infintesimal” are common pronunciations. But why “mispronunciation”? From my experience here in California, dropping that third i is quite a bit more common than pronouncing it. I’d say it’s at the very least an unremarkable alternate pronunciation in AmE, and it’s probably arguably standard in some places/registers. (“In-fin-i-TEH-suh-muhl” sounds fussy or showy to me.)

The decimal/centesimal/millesimal/infintesimal series in English is certainly fascinating/maddening. Long before any of those words showed up in Modern English, “decimalis” was being used in documents to refer to the tenth part of something given to the Church in tithe. So it’s easy to see how “tenth” and “one-tenth” could come to seem interchangeable in certain contexts; the seeds of the modern usage were planted long ago. Both “proceeding by tens” and “proceeding by one-tenths” show up as meanings of “decimal” within a few years of each other in the early 17th C—decades before any use of “infinitesimal.” If someone had wanted to use “infinitesimal” to mean “proceeding by infinitely small portions,” an analogous precedent would already have been available by the time the word is first cited. My guess is that it’s the gravitational pull of that precedent that alters the meaning of the word in the very early 18th C.



#3 2009-07-04 19:50:10

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2330

Re: infantesimal << infinitesmal

But why “mispronunciation”? From my experience here in California, dropping that third i is quite a bit more common than pronouncing it.

That third i has always been part of my pronunciation. It’s more of a schwa sound. But I can’t claim to have uttered it more than a few times in my life, and I tend to be a bit “bookish,” pronouncing what I see. I tried it on my wife, a Canadian born in Ontario, and a stickler for not slurring sounds. To my surprise, she left out the i. So you may be right. Would be interesting to hear how others handle this word.

If “in-fin-TESS-mall” is a standard pronunciation, wouldn’t that argue for the eggcornicity of “infinitesmall,” pronounced “in-fin-TEH-small?”

Last edited by kem (2009-07-04 19:54:44)



#4 2009-07-05 10:02:12

From: Montreal
Registered: 2008-03-17
Posts: 1036

Re: infantesimal << infinitesmal

Both inifinitesmall and infantesimal are improbable and therefore all the more wonderful. I found some further variations that are also difficult to credit, but out there for all that.

First, as Pat indicated in his order of magnitude series, it is possible to blend infant and the idea of decimal, so that the fraction is infantecimal. This one is equal in abundance to infantesimal:

Should you wait:
What everyone seems to forget is this an entirely physical act that only constitutes an infantecimal percentage of our spiritual relationship as a whole.
( … ost2930523)

“Infinitesimal” in French is “infime”, which shows up here:

War gamer site:
nice flame russian, but if i wanted the input from the infimetecimal intellect, I would have adressed you directly….
( … 691&page=2)

Next, I wonder if there isn’t a soupçon of the fantastically small in these:

Star Wars vs. Star Trek:
Today, we KNOW the earth is an infantasmal spec in the universe.
( … 0&page=762)

HIV/AIDS discussion:
children have HIV/AIDS not becuz they have sex (that only counts for a very small, almost infantasimal percent), but becuz it was contracted by birth.



#5 2009-07-05 11:16:35

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2330

Re: infantesimal << infinitesmal

“Infantasmal” and “infantasimal” are rare, but multiply attested. These seem to borrow from “fantasy/phantasm,” capturing the sense of wonder that accompanies the truly minute.

Last edited by kem (2009-07-05 13:04:56)



#6 2012-10-20 08:57:15

David Bird
From: Montréal, QC
Registered: 2009-07-28
Posts: 1386

Re: infantesimal << infinitesmal

I heard it pronounced yesterday as “infantesimal” on a TV show, and it sounded familiar. The Wordnik site has a first person account:

“For the longest time I thought it was infantesimal (you know, small … like a baby).”

Wordnik says that ‘infantesimal’ has been looked up 4855 times. The site might be useful for eggcorn evidence.

Last edited by David Bird (2012-10-20 09:02:54)



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