Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
This week I received an email from an acquaintance saying “I will bring some q-tips for swaps.” The switch of “swap” for “swab” didn’t surprise me – the fellow’s first language was not English. When I looked on the web for examples of the switch, however, I found that the error was as common as dirt. The , a typical example. Hundreds of other “swap” for “swab” switches can be viewed . There is also evidence on the web for the substitution of the verbal forms of the words.
The switch could have a semantic basis:
(1) A swab is something that swaps the place where a substance resides. The substance (earwax, dirt, etc.) ends up on the cotton.
(2) A common meaning for “a swap,” at least until the nineteenth century, “was “a strike, hit.” This would lead to a natural confusion of “swab” and “swap,” since cotton swabs are used to stroke an object. The OED says this older meaning for “swap” is obsolete outside of dialectical refugia, but I’m not sure this is true. I’ve heard people use the term in phrases such as “he took a swap at the fellow” or “she swapped him on the cheek.” It may be, of course, that these people are just confusing “swipe” or “slap” with “swap.” But they may also be hearkening back to the older meaning of “swap.”
I speak a dialectal refugium (refugion?), I guess: Your phrases, plus “swap his head off”, or “swap him one upside the head” sound fine (as in “good for communication”, not as in “high-falutin’”) to me. I have spelled it (and seen it spelled) “swop”.
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .