Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Pinchbeck is a kind of fake gold, a brass alloyed from a lot of copper and a little zinc. It was named after a London watchmaker, Christopher Pinchbeck (d. 1732). Whatever Mr. Pinchbeck earned in profits he lost in reputation – his surname became synonymous in the mid nineteenth century with something counterfeit, bogus. This figurative meaning of “pinchbeck” retained its currency in English for about a century. Since the early 1900s both the literal and figurative uses of the term have experienced in popularity.
In the years of its currency “pinchbeck” would occasionally transform itself into “pinchbeak.” Certain idiomatic uses of “pinch” – pinch and scrape, pinch of salt, feeling pinched – may have suggested to speakers an association with the outcome of acquiring counterfeit goods. Reading the semantics of “pinch” into the first syllable of Pinchbeck’s name – an Aunty Lehman – encouraged speakers to go whole hog (bird) and change the obscure “beck” into the more pinch-friendly “beak.”
When the word “pinchbeck” was loaned to Continental languages in the nineteenth century, the “pinchbeak” error was sometimes brought over. We can see this move in Le Bulletin de l’art ancien et moderne. Mr. Pinchbeck’s metal is described as
Pinchbeak, (pronounced “pintschbik”), named after its discoverer, an English inventor, an alloy [made] from 128 parts copper, 7 parts brass, 7 parts zinc or from 2 parts copper and 1 part brass, is highly malleable, a darkish gold, slow to oxidize.
I found three native examples of “pinchbeck” on the web, two from the nineteenth century, one from a twentieth century Commonwealth source:
: “But a woman like yourself can wear any pinchbeak pearls with impunity because people assume that her pearls are genuine.”
: “The choir is surrounded by a balustrade of metal called tumbago ( pinchbeak ).”
Exhilaratingly arcane and multitongued exploitation of the capabilities of the web. Great stuff.Any connection to “pinchback reproductions” which are taxidermy mounts with a plastic skull attached to antlers?
The obscurity of Pinchbeck reminds me of an ad I saw in the classified section of the old News of the World, that went something like this:
Special offer! Get our Pinchbeck aphrodisiac by mail. Unique ersatz love formula has an irresistible nostrum effect on women. Get ready for spurious action, this baby works as advertised!
I hadn’t thought about “pinchback.” It’s an old word for a miser. Would be easy to confuse with “pinchbeck.”
John Neal in The Down-Easters, Vol. I, presents some sound-literal dialogue that shows a confusion between “pinchback” and “pinchbeck.”
watch putty fair—best imitation I’ve seen since I dont know when. Imitation? said I. Yes—pinchback. Pinchbeck? Yes—that what dye ye call’ em stuff, washed over with gool leaf. Pho, pho man—that is neither pinchback nor imitation. Posserble! What is it then? Gold—fine gold.