Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Analogy is perhaps the most potent single factor driving change in a language and has always been so. It affects all layers of speech and is clearly seen in the phonology and grammar, while semantic or lexical analogy is the kind of analogy that causes a word or phrase which strikes a speaker as wrong to get reshaped to look more like something already familiar to that speaker. This may impact the word’s form or its meaning or both. What starts life as the imagining of a single speaker (let’s call it Type A) may then sometimes get taken up by other people. If taken up, it may spread and become a recognised alternative to the orginal word or phrase (Type B), though with localised or minority deployment and often despised as uneducated. If it survives this phase, it may then become an ‘official’ form in the language as a whole (Type C). In some instances the new form may replace the original and become the sole form in the dictionary (Type D).
I knew an old gentlemen for whom the accelerator in his car was always and only its “exhilarator”. I take this to be Type A. For Type B one could cite “chaise lounge” for “chaise longue” and “carry van” for “caravan”. As Type C consider “catchup” as a variant of “ketchup”, and, for Type D, “admiral” from Arabic “amir al (bahr)”. Most of my examples here are of foreign origin in English, and reshapings do indeed occur with borrowings much more frequently than with native words. This is true of all languages at all eras, but one needs a record of the audit trail to be sure, which is why it is harder to recognise instances in dead or non-literate languages.
A speaker who finds the unfamiliar term uncomfortable may be thought of us feeling an urge to make it more comfortable by altering it so as to incorporate an item of pre-existing vocabulary, which acts as the model or attractor. Sometimes only a part of the target term gets reshaped, such as Type B “spara-grass” for “asparagus”, and sometimes the whole gets reshaped, as in Type B “sparrow-grass” for the same, both of which are in my dictionary. It is important that the attractor not only has a shape similar to the target’s, but has a meaning that can be felt as related to the composition or usage of the object, process or concept denoted by the target term. The “grass” element in the foregoing examples is a plant, as is asparagus, and so fits well. The second stage here is to take the first element as a bird name, with the assumption of parallelism with “goose-grass”.
The creative process can be both swift and comprehensive, as in this mock dialogue based on a real case:step 1: The current form clashes with its presumed origin: “There’s no ham in my hamburger!” step 2: The form is reshaped to fit its imagined etymology: “It must be a beefburger.” step 3: Sometimes a new lexical element is born as well: “Do they make a turkeyburger too?”
In my research into the effect of folk etymology upon the names of plants found in ancient Greek, Egyptian and cuneiform texts, I have being toying with ways of measuring the effectiveness of the changes wrought. I would value opinions on the following method, which uses a threefold “comfort score”. Each element is like a probability between 0 and 1. The first is an assessment of how well the outcome fits the target in shape, and the second how well in meaning. Both start at 0, and a score of 1 1 shows that the speaker’s urge has reached maximal comfort. The third digit marks how much the new form has reached total and exclusive use in the language. It is covenient for now to use ½ to denote any fractional score. Here are some examples from British usage, showing target, attractor(s), outcome, rationale and score:amiral, “admire” & words such as “integral”, admiral, such an admirable officer, 1 1 1 chaise longue, “lounge”, chaise lounge, you lounge on it, ½ ½ 0 ça ne fait rien, abstract phrase of dismissal, san fairy Anne, = SFA & nicer than ‘sweet f* all’, 1 ½ ½ accelerator, “exhilarator”, exhilarator, as every car driver knows, 1 1 0 divan, “dive” & “on”, dive-on, that’s what you do to it, 1 1 0 caravan, “carry” & ” van”, carry van, it’s a type of vehicle, 1 1 0 asparagus, “grass”, spara-grass, it’s a type of plant, ½ ½ 0 asparagus, “sparrow ” & “grass”, sparrow grass, like ‘goose-grass’, 1 1 0
Sincerely, Stephen Durnford
Not sure I understand the system…
Let’s say ARMS AND THE MAN turns into ARMSON, THE MAN (maybe the stage name of a pro wrassler). Does this get a 1-0-0? Maybe a 1- 1/2 -0?
Last edited by Tom Neely (2006-09-03 21:40:10)
You are right that my idea is complicated and that its scores may not have much consequential use. The process of attempting to find a score does, however, provide a check-list for the analyst and a convenient shorthand for conveying your findings to another analyst. Furthermore, parts of my text contained a column structure when I submitted it, but the message system, zealously seeking to exclude wasteful white space, has raveled my careful crafting and made iit nto continuous paragraphing, which adds to the perceived complexity.
You cite “arms on, the man” for “arms and the man” . This kind of deliberate punning use or misunderstanding of one’s ordinary daily language is not what I am talking about, whereas “eggcorn” is and has a score of 1 1 0. A man I know habitually says “as white as a sheep” for “as white as a sheet” , which is just as apt as the original and involves swapping words that are both familiar to him, but he is clearly unaware of what he is doing. The first element in the score is N/A here, since there is no uncomfortable form getting replaced, so I could score my friend’s phase as either 1 1 0 or as – 1 0.
If someone who genuinely believes the rather joycian “eggcorn” to be the proper spoken word sees “acorn” written down, then the latter form may in fact be taken to be a separate word and perhaps even to denote a different object . When confronted with the truth, that speaker may exhibit shame or even denial, given the implication of years spent amusing and dismaying the rest of us. Worse, what habits of that sort do I myself have that I have not yet realised?
The use of “eggcorn” as the generic name for all kinds of reshaped form is not itself an eggcorn, of course. Instead “eggcorn” used as a designation that way becomes a nearly new word doing duty for a new concept, like hoover or bikini, both of which were already established in respective roles quite different from those which fate was to thrust them into.