Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Seen in passing on the web…
“Foil,” like the word “cleave,” is one of those rare English terms whose list of meanings embraces antonyms. “Foil” and “cleave,” however, achieve this opposition by homography of separately derived words. Even rarer are English antonyms that arrive at antonymy through diverging paths from the same ancestral root-words such as “invention,” whose archaic meaning of something found, discovered contradicts the modern meaning of something invented.
Interesting links and new eggcorns.
Jan Freeman’s parenthetical aside that the word foil, used as a verb, might be obsolete, is one more in a disturbing series of posts I’ve encountered that impugn the vitality of words that I would have thought sound if not thriving. Is it possible for words to become obsolete within a lifetime, for other than ethical reasons? Ditto bar, which is uncontroversial, even sprightly, for me.
I learned the noun foil as a literary device, the bad guy acting as a foil to emphasize the sterling qualities of the good. I didn’t know that the sense came from jewellery displays (nowadays foil has been replaced by blazing halogen lamps). I imagined it as if the foil layer had been applied to the hero, then withdrawn, and then the negative relief used to model his opposite.
David’s remark about Freeman’s comment on the obsolescence of “foil” left me a bit confused, so I went back to her post:
The shelter mag’s “perfect foil” looks like a combination of the two senses—it has the phrasing of the fashion cliche, but the meaning of the (obsolete?) noun foil.
She seems to be right; the OED’s article on this “foil”—meaning, essentially, “defeat”—gives “archaic” or “obsolete” markers for all four senses. And the uses on display there are fairly unfamiliar to me. But I think this particular “foil” is still around—it’s just not used as a simplex. Isn’t it the same word that appears in “wind foil”—meaning something that blocks the wind or blunts its effects? “Wind foil” doesn’t seem to show up in the OED—under either the (archaic/obsolete) “foil” article or as a separate word. But it’s widely used online. Interestingly, some of the users are clearly thinking of something made of “foil” (i.e., a light, thin sheet of metal), so we may have all sorts of hidden eggcornicity going on. But many users are clearly using it to refer to a wind obstruction made of any kind of material.
Given the context of Freeman’s original citation, I wonder whether “wind foil” might have been running a bit of interference there. But that’s really hard to say.
On a slightly different topic, the OED’s earliest date for the first use of “foil” as “complement” actually comes about a decade before its first citation for “foil” in the sense of a setting for gems. Of course, by itself that doesn’t really offer a serious challenge to the usual etymological narrative for this term. But it does illustrate that literal and figurative uses of a word often seem to be fraternal twins, born at almost the same moment.