Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
On Wednesday of this week many members of the Western Christian Church begin the forty days of Lent. Lent, which lasts from Ash Wednesday to the Thursday before Easter, is a time of fasting, penitence and almsgiving.
The use of the word “alms” for an act of charity feels a bit old-fashioned to modern speakers. This unfamiliarity leads some people to substitute “arms” for “alms.” Examples:
: “Am not here to beg for arms but rather seeking for your sincere co-operation”
: “These persons therefore roam the streets to beg for arms or even engage in all sorts of unhealthy activities.”
: “making their living by begging for arms in major cities like Manila, Cebu and many others”
The person offering alms/arms to another is extending a helping hand/arm.
“Alms” is pronounced with a silent “l,” so “arms” and “alms” sound much the same in non-rhotic dialects of English.
I couldn’t find many examples on the web–a lack of unique idiomatic contexts for “alms” make the switch hard to locate. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of the switches that I found were from West African countries–the interchange seems to have local legs there.
Those of you who know your Shakespeare will be aware that, despite the terminal “s,” “alms” is the singular form (e.g., “an alms”). In ancient times the plural of “alms” included an “n” (as in “ox->oxen”), but the n-plural disappeared from everyday English, forcing the spelling “alms” to occupy both singular and plural roles. Until about two centuries ago, an English speaker would normally have used “alms” with a singular verb (“Alms at Lent is expected”), but these days we tend to think of the word as plural (“Alms at Lent are expected.”).
As a follow up, it’s worth mentioning that many towns and villages have a little row of houses called almshouses. As you point out, Kem, it’s not a familiar idea for modern times so now there seem to be charitable munitions dumps up and down the country:
“Gecko is working in partnership with the Local Arms Houses Organisation for the maintenance and upkeep of arms houses in West Yorkshire.”
“I have been told these houses were used by a local hospital (which is no longer) as Arms Houses many years ago”
So giving arms is eggcornish in that it is parallel to giving someone a hand(-out), or giving them a leg up? Good enough for me—if this is standard for people, preferably native-speakers of English, rather than just an occasional error.
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .