Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
In Love’s Labor’s Lost, , the Latin-lobbing schoolmaster Holofernes confuses “ingenuous” and “ingenious” when he says “Mehercle, if their sons be ingenuous, they shall want no instruction”
“Ingenuous” originally meant native/freeborn and eventually became a synonym for noble/highborn. The adjective was extended to the qualities of nobility, eventually taking on the sense in which we employ it today: a term for frank/honest. When Holofernes says the sons of the locals are “ingenuous” he is referring, it appears, to their status as freeborn, perhaps highborn natives. But when he goes on to say that they won’t need his tutoring services, he has switched in the meaning of “ingenious,” a word for clever/talented, that derives from a different Latin source.
It is not entirely clear, however, that Shakespeare is faulting the Latinate English of schoolteachers in this passage. “Ingenious” was a common spelling of “ingenuous,” at least until the late eighteenth century, when lexicographers finally took some pains to sort out the confusion and get the spellings and meanings of the two words aligned to the modern norm. Holofernes, adhering as he did to the Elizabethan standard, would have thought that the spelling “ingenuous” had two completely different meanings – that is, that “ingenuous = freeborn” and “ingenuous = clever” were homographs/homophones. He did not, then, so much switch two words as switch the two senses of a single word. This explanation fits better with what we know of Holofernes from the play. His great sin in Love’s Labor’s Lost is a hyperndulgence in Latin-influenced word puns, not the inability to handle Latin derivations. He had too much Latin, not too little.
Interestingly, the early lexicographers, who won their battle in the case of “ingenuous/ingenious,” tried but failed to rectify the parallel misuse of “ingenuity.” “Ingenuity,” which, as we can see from the internal “u,” derives from “ingenuous,” is treated in modern English as the abstract noun of “ingenious.”
We don’t use the word “ingenuous” much these days, but we do put to work its negation, “disingenuous,” as a synonym for fraudulent/mean/insincere. You can see the frequency of the two words passing each other . “Disingenuous” is well on the way to becoming a word with a .
The word “disingenious” is not part of modern English. On the web, however, we can find hundreds of examples of “disingenious.” This respelling was noted . What the earlier post fails to note, however, is that in most cases the writers are simply misspelling the word “disingenuous.” Here are other examples that would probably be classed as misspellings:
: “Why are so many Unionist Politicians so disingenious ”
: ““To the tea party members. Your concerns are usually disingenious. Your opinions of the occupy movement arent needed.”
: “its important to see people fight back against disingenious bullshit.”
There are cases, though, in which the users of “disingenious” seem to be importing some or all of the meaning of “ingenious” – i.e., they are using “disingenious” in the sense of stupid/silly rather than hypocritical/fraudulent. Here are a few of these:
: “ Disingenious Analysis”
: “The next day, my friend sent me an e-mail stating that his e-mail of the day before was a bit ” disingenious ”. Well, I just love it! I no longer tell people that I did something “stupid”. I will now say. I believe that what I did might be construed as a little “disingenious ”.”
: “I could understand wanting to implement hardcore amateurism during the college years, as backwards and disingenious as it seems to me, but punishing the player from something that happened before he played there seems ludicrous. ”
Between these two uses of “disingenious” – as a misspelling of “disingenuous” and in the “dis” + “ingenious” sense – are, I suspect, a number of writers who are eggcornically importing a part of the meaning of “ingenious” into their word “disingenious.” They are saying, in effect, that an act is both deceptive and silly.
Last edited by kem (2011-12-21 17:06:58)
Nice exposition and credible interpretation. About 200 instances of “disgenious” are out there as well, which would reinforce the connection to ingenuity. This would be the negation of ingenious, but with the sense of artfully manipulative or two-faced? Is it too much to ask that those who use the alternative “disgenuous” are implying the opposite of ingenuity? Or maybe they’re making the .
With reference to Billy Bob’s fit of pique on the radio recently, here’s a nonce by someone who knows their combining forms, sort of:
For an actor with several movies currently in the works it is totally dysingenious to expect it not to come up in some way.
http://www.gearslutz.com/board/so-much- … ian-7.html
“Disingenuous” is well on the way to becoming a word with a lost radical.
I imagine Kem has tongue at least partially in cheek here, but I wonder what all these downward-trending ngrams really mean. I don’t really believe that “horse,” or “epistle” or “acre” or even “pence” are really on their way out despite fairly consistent slides for the last two hundred years. (Nearly all of them benefit from the “Bird effect,” however, as their arcs arc decidedly upward from 2000 to 2008.) I wonder whether there isn’t a sort of cultural buffering effect at work here that would make it pretty darn impossible for words very common, say, fifty years ago to disappear nearly completely in the next fifty. Maybe words for specialized and obsolete technology could truly bottom out and flatline, but could, say, “ingenuous” really disappear given how often fanatic readers (like ourselves) will keep seeing it in older books? It’s part of my everyday vocabulary, and I was actually a bit dismayed to see its ngram profile.
I’ve often wondered whether the fashions in word usage aren’t really complex. For instance, might it be possible that words that start to become less common might thereby pick up a little bit of cachet as interestingly uncommon—and as a result start becoming more widely used again because of the new nuances that attach to them?
Last edited by patschwieterman (2011-12-22 00:43:41)
I agree Pat, words do not leave us very often. Meanings of words, on the other hand, are about as robust as tubercular lemmings.
When words reach a certain rarity, a rescue operation kicks in. Writers (present company not excepted) love to grab a sinking word by the collar and yank it from the swirling purl.
Last edited by kem (2011-12-22 23:58:08)