Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I’ve started watching the 2003 ITV series The Adventure of English, a filmed history of the English language written and narrated by the British writer/broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.
In the first and second program of the series, Bragg covers the impact of Norman French on English in the two centuries following 1066. Most of the French adoptions into English discussed in the video are standard fare: words having to do with royalty, law, food, trade, etc (Youtube has online.). A segment in this part of the series that I found novel and fascinating was the bit on falconry. The Normans brought to England a passion for the sport and many of the technical French words associated with falconry, the video points out, have metaphored into street English.
Bragg mentions nine falconry-derived words:
(1) The word “falcon” is borrowed from French.
(2) The English word “leash” is adapted from the French word for the line used to tie a falcon to its perch.
(3) English “block” is based on bloc, the French word for the perch of a falcon.
(4) A “codger,” or “cadger,” was an older man who carried around the cages for the falcons. It evolved into a generic word for an older man.
(5) In the sport of falconry, a bird that fluttered away from fist or perch was said to batre, giving rise to the English term “bate.”
(6) When a falcon was distracted from its prey or from returning to the fist, it was said to “check.” So comes the English word for stopping (checking) motion.
(7) The word “lure,” as in “fishing lure,” traces back to a French word for a dummy bird used to train falcons.
(8) “Quarry” derives from the word in falconry for a reward given to a bird being trained.
(9) The Old French word for moulting is the source for the English “mews.” The word for the act of moulting first became the word for the special cages that held moulting birds, then for the house where the cages were kept. A cage house at Charing Cross burned down in the sixteenth century and was replaced with one of the royal stables. Eventually the word was applied to the suite of buildings associated with a stable. Builders adopted the term for a housing development that resembled linked stable houses.
When I heard the list of falconry-derived terms, it all seemed too fascinating to be true. I did a bit of poking around and discovered that most of the etymologies were, alas, too fascinating to be true. Bragg does appear to be correct about three of the words: the commonly-used English terms “falcon,” “lure,” and “mews” almost certainly have their origin in the sport of falconry. The rest of the words, six of the original nine, are a mixture of mistakes and folk etymologies. To wit:
(2) “Leash” first appears in English referencing to a cord for restraining dogs. The use of the French term lesse for the falconry cord may have contributed to the development of “leash” in English, but other contexts have serious claim to be the principal source of the word.
(3) It is misleading to imply that the English word “block” comes from the technical vocabulary of falconry. “Block,” meaning a piece of wood, has been part of English for a long time and the medieval uses of the word show no dependence on the falconry term.
(4) “Codger” probably comes from “cadge,” and “cadge” is not related to “cage.” The derivation of “cadge” from “cage” is, says the OED, “phonetically impossible.”
(5) “Bate,” meaning to fly away from a perch, was used figuratively in Shakespeare’s day, but it is now obsolete. Words like “debate” and “combat” also trace back to the Latin battare through the French “battre,” but they do it without taking a byway though the sport of falconry.
(6) “To check” comes into English from Old French, to be sure, but its source is the game of chess, not falconry. Metaphorical applications of the word deriving from the board game are earlier than the earliest recorded use of “check” as a technical term in falconry.
(8) “Quarry” probably derives from “cuir,” the word for leather, hide. As with “leash,” the earliest recorded use of “quarry” is in the context of hunting with dogs.
“Codger” seems to be a folk etymology, no matter how we slice the pie. The other five are folk etymologies if Bragg is claiming that the everyday English words are taken from the sport of falconry. Of course, the video could just be saying that the English technical terms used in falconry (“check,” “leash,” etc.) are derived from French technical terms in the same sport. But that would undercut the larger point, the point made by words such as “falcon” and “mews,” which is that the French words used in the sport of falconry made their way into nontechnical English.
In addition to punting the derivations of these six words, the ITV video overlooked two really good French-to-everyday-English-via-falconry words. One of them is “haggard,” which was the term used by falconers to designate a wild falcon that was caught as an adult and trained as a hunting bird. The adult-caught bird, which was often wild and contrary, gave rise to our word “haggard” for someone who is unkempt, wild-looking, gaunt. The other word is “rouse.” When we “rouse someone from sleep” we are making use of a term first applied by falconers to a bird ruffling and shaking its feathers.
I feel like the falconry segment of this video series has tried to hoodwink viewers. And speaking of hoodwinking, we might note that “hoodwink” is another term that has an association with falconry. The word wasn’t mentioned in the video, of course, because it doesn’t derive from French but from two good Teutonic words, “hood” and “wink” (meaning “to close the eyes”). Falcons are hoodwinked, fitted with an opaque cloth that covers the eyes but not the beak and nostrils, to calm them and get them to release their prey. The modern English word “hoodwink,” meaning to deceive, ultimately comes from the practice of blindfolding with a hood. But whether its source is the sport of falconry is uncertain. People being executed were also said to be hoodwinked when their heads were covered with a cloth and it is possible that the modern figurative use of “hoodwink” may trace back to the language of execution.
The reason I bring up “hoodwink” here is its eggcorn potential. A number of web pages record this word as “hoodwinged” (See, for example, the Google entries at http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22to+hoodwing%22 ). Possibly some of the writers who are spelling it “hoodwing” have in mind the use of the term in falconry, a sport with wings. Others may be thinking about the way liars who want to deceive you “wing it” instead of telling the truth.
Last edited by kem (2010-05-01 19:01:37)
Wow—a great post. I love false etymologies, Anglo-Norman and falconry terms (I first fell in love with the latter in T. H. White’s amazing novel The Once and Future King), so this was a delight to read.
My spider sense began to tingle pretty badly with “codger”; it was registering on the Richter by the time I got to “check.” I was glad to see you’d already undertaken etymological investigations by the time I got to the end of the post. I find it amazing that this kind of thing got into such a high-profile series on the history of the language. Wouldn’t you expect that some intern would be tasked with using the OED to double-check every word that was highlighted in the series? Huh.
You left out one of my favorite A-N falconry terms, probably because you used it last year as the starting point for one of our richest and most interesting threads. If anyone hasn’t read the “eyas” thread yet, they should: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/forum/view … hp?id=3613
I can think of one common word Bragg’s list doesn’t include—the verb “to pounce” probably comes (a bit belatedly) from the technical name for some of the claws of a falcon.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2010-05-01 20:15:07)
I find it amazing that this kind of thing got into such a high-profile series on the history of the language.
Yes, strange. The booklet that comes with the series acknowledges the help of the OED. I see the Publishers Weekly review of the book behind the series also noted the variance between some of Bragg’s sources and the OED.
You left out one of my favorite A-N falconry terms, probably because you used it last year
Thanks for the reminder. I was planning to include “eyas,” but when I got around to writing the post, I forgot about it. Manopause.
“Pounce.” That’s a new one to me. Good addition. So we now have falcon, mews, eyas, haggard, rouse, and pounce. Not baseball, but not bad.
I could see people in the twentieth century taking up falconry for the same reason they study heraldry. The antique vocabulary is meat for the word hound. with a small glossary of falconry. I don’t see any words that made the French to English transition using an eggcorn mechanism.
Before guns reached a stage where they had the power and accuracy to hit a flying bird, the only reliable way to bring many of the passerines to hand was a trained hawk (If you think archers could do it, you’ve been watching too much Robin Hood.). Falconry went into decline as soon as guns came along. Some connection, no doubt.
Last edited by kem (2010-05-03 10:26:27)
It’s amazing that so many folk etymologies would be presented together. I wonder if these are current, or if they originated with this production.
“Allure” is another English word derived ultimately from AN falconry, along with peregrine, gyrfalcon, and of course, Merlin*. Come to think of it, where would Merle Haggard be without falconry?
But I think there may be other eggcorns afoot, or on the wing. The haggard’s unsightliness may have drawn sustenance from its association with OE , a fascinating word in its own right, with a folk-riddled entry in the Online ED. In turn, the hag comes back to haunt us today, in the form of hagged.
* Edit: Before I reutterate another folk etymology, let me quote Wikipedia regarding the origin of the name of the character of Merlin.
The Welsh name Myrddin (Welsh pronunciation: [ˈmərðɪn]) is usually explained as deriving from a (mistaken) folk etymology of the toponym Moridunum, the Roman era name of modern Carmarthen, as referring to a person (OED).[clarification needed]
Some accounts describe two different figures named Merlin. For example, the Welsh Triads state there were three baptismal bards: Chief of Bards Taliesin, Myrddin Wyllt, and Myrddin Emrys (i.e., Merlinus Ambrosius). It is believed that these two bards called Myrddin were originally variants of the same figure. The stories of Wyllt and Emrys had become different in the earliest texts that they are treated as separate characters, even though similar incidents are ascribed to both.
Medievalist Gaston Paris suggested that Geoffrey chose the Latinization Merlinus rather than the regular Merdinus to avoid a resemblance to the Anglo-Norman word for “shit”, merde.
The common name of Falco columbarius, “merlin” is unrelated, having lost an initial s- in Old French, originally deriving from a cognate of Old High German smerle (OED).
Last edited by David Bird (2010-05-02 22:10:13)
In addition to punting the derivations of these six words,
Kem, what do you mean by “punt” here? It’s got me flummoxed.
It’s a football (American) idiom. See the last definition at http://www.thefreedictionary.com/punt
“To punt” draws its meaning from the play-it-safe football tactic of punting on the last down rather than running or passing (and thus giving the opponent a good field position if your team fails to make the down). Punting something, therefore, is not dealing with, putting it off. It can also be the same as making a mistake – football fans, with more enthusiasm than knowledge of good game strategies, often regard a punt on fourth and short yardage as a cowardly act, a mistake.
Just to confuse things, the ball is also punted in soccer and rugby, but under completely different circumstances.
Kem, what do you mean by “punt” here? It’s got me flummoxed.
Posts on the forum have exposed the divide between British and American English many times when someone from one side of the pond or the other was confused by a comment, but I think this is the first time I can remember that a Canadian/American gulf has been revealed.
I always thought it interesting that “bunt” from baseball and “punt” from football rhyme since they both refer to a situation in which you decide tactically to “hold back.” I never thought to look them up till I saw Kem’s last comment, but while they’re etymologically obscure, they may both be variants of a dialectal term meaning “to push, strike.”
I’ve lived in Canada most of my adult life, so I do a passable imitation of the Canadian lilt and pronunciation. I seldom get outed (Though my way of sounding “root” – something like “ruht” – has raised the occasional eyebrow.). As you point out, Pat, it’s the deeper structures, the ones that lead to word choice and metaphor, that really define one’s linguistic home.
“Bunt” and “punt” can indeed be confused:
: “Justin Brodnax drove in the second run with a base hit to right and later Michael Diffie drove in a run with a perfect punt single on the safety squeeze to extend the Pilot’s lead to 3-0.”
: “Myers and Dickerson were moved up when Adam Rosales laid a perfect sacrifice punt to the pitcher.”
I suppose we should add “putt” to the “pushing” sport metaphors.
By the way, welcome back to the forum, Dr. Schwieterman. You have been missed.
Lest I mislead the world, I should point out that Canadians play American football as well, from a young age, so I know how, when and why to punt. What was missing, and surprising and interesting to me, was the connotation of mistake associated with a punt. An example, for me, that what you both say is true: associations make lines of demarcation that don’t show up in dictionaries (but see the last definition from the Computing Dictionary , that still doesn’t quite make it to mistake, however) , or better, “Pat, it’s the deeper structures, the ones that lead to word choice and metaphor, that really define one’s linguistic home.”
I don’t typically use “punt” in the way Kem used it; for me, “punting the derivations of these six words” would mean something like avoiding talking about the derivations, or failing to mention them. But Kem’s usage didn’t raise any alarms for me at all – I think I understood it without taking notice of it – and in fact it seems to be within range for many speakers. For example, some people seem to use “to punt the test” to mean “to screw up the test”:
I hate Myers-Briggs, had to take one for a job after the second interview.
Punted the test and they didn’t talk to me much after it.
http://forums.sohc4.net/index.php?actio … ic=57383.0
So after punting the test, and then straggling through my reps, I had to go home without showering.
[The rest of the post makes it clear the poster did take the calculus test referred to here and wasn’t too hopeful about the results, so “punting” would seem to be synonymous with “blowing.”]
But other people use “to punt the test” to mean “to avoid or delay taking/administering the test”:
They didn’t hold back the best candidates, they held back the candidates that scored best on the test. Those two things are not necessarily the same.
While many on here are lauding this opinion (likely because they like the result, and not the reasoning) I can’t yet share this jubilation. There are some real problems with this result. The City of New Haven punted the test because they feared it was discriminatory.
http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forum … n/2097481/
So, do I punt the test and go on vacation?
http://www.welltrainedmind.com/forums/a … 58303.html
[The rest of the post makes it clear that the poster is trying to decide whether to have his/her kids take a test or go on vacation.]
My own guess is that non-standard/very informal/slangy terms probably tend to have a broader range of meanings than standard ones, esp. when they’re not really common. I think it’d be hard to test that theory, however.
Thanks for the welcome back, Kem, though I may still be a rare sight for a while as I slowly emerge from the wreckage.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2011-02-27 17:51:59)
as I slowly emerge from the wreckage.
I had a friend in Ontario who did a Master’s degree in English. I asked him why he didn’t go on and do a Ph.D. His colorful response was “Why would I willingly lower my balls into someone else’s vise?”
Ouch! I think I prefer my train-wreck metaphor, but I can’t utterly deny the occasional relevance of the other.
The NYT comment:
The divisive matter of whether ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens should go into the military or perform national service, punted by Mr. Netanyahu last summer, is also looming.
Considering our global audience, we should remember that American sports jargon is no slam-dunk for comprehension.