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#1 2013-05-07 01:13:01

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 650

"First come, first serve" instead of "served"

I’ve read/heard this one a lot, most recently in this online ad for a local movie screening:

The screening is FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE, so we advise that you show up early.

I’m inclined to write this one off as nothing more than people’s mishearing leading to their cutting off the last letter of a word, resulting in a different (ungrammatical in context) form of that word. I can’t think of a convincing meaning-attribution that would justify considering this an actual eggcorn. Any other opinions?

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#2 2013-05-07 15:51:34

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1780
Website

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

I get a definite difference in meaning, corresponding quite exactly to the grammatical difference. First come, first serve I might paraphrase as “If you come first I/we will serve you first”; first come first served would be “If you come first you will be the first one served”. As often happens with grammatical shifts of the sort it makes little practical difference, but the standard version definitely (in my mind) focuses on what happens to the firstcomer, whereas the newer version focuses on what somebody (unspecified) will do to/for the firstcomer.
.
We have had discussions in the past about whether meaning shifts of this order of magnitude count as eggcorns. I (still) think they are the same sort of thing as eggcorns, just less dramatic or obvious. If drama is a criterion for a “good” eggcorn (and why shouldn’t it be), these are lesser eggcorns, but (in my mind) eggcorns for all that.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#3 2013-05-07 21:25:45

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 650

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

DavidTuggy wrote:

First come, first serve I might paraphrase as “If you come first I/we will serve you first”;

David, I interpret “first come, first serve” differently than you do. The implied subject of the verb “come” is the person coming, not someone serving that person. Since the complete phrase sets up a parallelism between “first come” and “first serve”, the subject of the verb “serve” must also be that person. In other words, the implication is that the person doing the serving is the same person who is coming. Since that is probably never the intended meaning of “first come, first serve”, I see it as simply an ungrammatical mishearing. On the other hand, since the two verb forms in “first come, first served” are different, it’s not a parallelism and the verbs can, and do, have two different people as subject, so, unlike “first come, first serve”, “first come, first served” conveys the intended meaning.

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#4 2013-05-08 08:37:50

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1780
Website

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

I can get that reading too, and agree generally that parallelism in the matter of subject identity is preferable for reductions/omissions of this sort. But the reading I suggested, by ignoring that preference, gives a meaning that fits the context(s) better. There are quite a few pithy English phrases that work that way for me: people say them in a way that taken very literally and according to grammatical rules should mean X, but context shows they must mean Y, so you shake your head and go with Y.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#5 2013-05-08 09:12:57

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 650

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

David, I think your paraphrase of “first come, first serve” in your post #2 is just flat-out inaccurate. You are inferring a meaning that is simply not implied. I would agree that it’s possible that some dunderhead could say “first come, first serve” and mean what you said it means (“If you come first I/we will serve you first”), but the likelihood of that seems so small compared to the likelihood that it’s, as I said, simply an ungrammatical mishearing that the speaker is using as an idiom that’s not thought of as making literal sense, that your interpretation seems like a sucker bet. We may have to agree to disagree on this one.

Last edited by Dixon Wragg (2013-05-08 09:28:05)

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#6 2013-05-08 12:43:58

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1780
Website

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

Look, “ungrammatical” and “doesn’t make literal sense” are judgments of outsiders, not of the ones using the proscribed forms. For one who doesn’t say it, “ain’t got no …” is ungrammatical and don’t make no literal sense, but to people who use it all the time, it is perfectly fine and makes perfect sense. It may forever be, from your (or my) Olympian viewpoint, ungrammatical and nonsensical, but for those who use it it works and they make sense of it.
.
I’ve got a big collection of usages, many published, where my grammar says the subjects ought to match but they don’t and the writers/editors thought it made enough sense they didn’t fix it (I suspect in most cases it never occurred to them.) Things like “in early childhood his mother died”, or “being a holiday, Yahoo is running slower”, or “After more than 17 years dedicated to exploring the effects of solar activity on the space that surrounds us, the sun is setting on the Ulysses mission”. They knew what they meant, and so do I, if I let myself.
.
If no perps think of first come first serve the way I suggested, then, I guess you are right to say it was just flat-out inaccurate. It still would be the way I made sense of the phrase. But I’d bet there are some others out there who would make sense of it that way.


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#7 2013-05-08 13:59:09

kem
Eggcornista
From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2152

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

I’m not clear about what has been suppressed in “first come, first served?” Could the verbs the remnants of infinitives (to come, to be served), and thus tenseless?

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#8 2013-05-08 21:10:26

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 650

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

DavidTuggy wrote:

Look, “ungrammatical” and “doesn’t make literal sense” are judgments of outsiders, not of the ones using the proscribed forms. For one who doesn’t say it, “ain’t got no …” is ungrammatical and don’t make no literal sense, but to people who use it all the time, it is perfectly fine and makes perfect sense. It may forever be, from your (or my) Olympian viewpoint, ungrammatical and nonsensical, but for those who use it it works and they make sense of it.
I’ve got a big collection of usages, many published, where my grammar says the subjects ought to match but they don’t and the writers/editors thought it made enough sense they didn’t fix it (I suspect in most cases it never occurred to them.) Things like “in early childhood his mother died”, or “being a holiday, Yahoo is running slower”, or “After more than 17 years dedicated to exploring the effects of solar activity on the space that surrounds us, the sun is setting on the Ulysses mission”. They knew what they meant, and so do I, if I let myself.

David, your examples are good and your points are well taken. Though I don’t intend to be grammatically tight-assed, and I often violate grammatical rules when clarity isn’t thereby impaired, I must insist that “ungrammatical” and “doesn’t make literal sense” are objective, not subjective, judgments, and this is true regardless of whether people can accurately divine the meaning of ungrammatical phrases which don’t make literal sense. Of course, when the communication is clear anyway, my points are moot, but to the extent that proper grammar creates clarity (which is supposed to be its function, although there are a few grammatical rules which are silly and pointless), it’s not negligible. In the case of “first come, first serve”, nearly everybody would understand the intended meaning because they’re familiar with the acorn “first come, first served”, but someone not familiar with that acorn might interpret “first come, first serve” as “the first to arrive will be the first to serve” (not “to be served”), which would be a correct interpretation of the phrase as worded, but a misunderstanding of the intended meaning. In the examples you give, often the intended meaning will only be understood if the recipient has some cultural knowledge outside the actual words at hand. Hence the need for proper grammar in situations wherein we’re not sure all recipients will understand the idiom. Also, many phrases like the ones in your examples will be at least briefly confusing in some contexts even to people who are fully conversant in the English language, and making one’s reader stop for a second to figure out what one really meant is crappy writing.

If no perps think of first come first serve the way I suggested, then, I guess you are right to say it was just flat-out inaccurate. It still would be the way I made sense of the phrase. But I’d bet there are some others out there who would make sense of it that way.

You may be right. Your interpretation of “first come, first serve” as “If you come first I/we will serve you first” is, I think, wrong in terms of the literal meanings of the words as written, AND the intended meaning will be clear to nearly everyone. “Mkfjfj gliffd brzzzap” could mean “I love my mother” if someone understands it that way, regardless of issues like grammar, which become moot in the face of clear understanding. It occurs to me that my characterization of “first come, first serve” as “simply an ungrammatical mishearing that the speaker is using as an idiom that’s not thought of as making literal sense” is not much different from your position, if I’m understanding you correctly, though we may be presuming somewhat different cognitive processes in the perp.

But on the one hand, David, you seem to be saying that “first come, first serve”, as used and understood, means the same as “first come, first served”, while on the other hand, in your first post on this thread, you infer significant distinctions between the meanings of the two terms—distinctions which I don’t see there at all. I guess I’m confused at this point. Anyhow, I’m sure not convinced yet that “first come, first serve” is anything more than, again, an ungrammatical mishearing that the speaker is using as an idiom, which falls short of eggcornicity.

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#9 2013-05-08 21:16:12

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 650

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

kem wrote:

I’m not clear about what has been suppressed in “first come, first served?” Could the verbs the remnants of infinitives (to come, to be served), and thus tenseless?

Kem, I’m unclear on what you mean by “suppressed” here, and, while I agree with your point about the verbs here possibly being understandable as truncated infinitives, I’m unclear on what you’re getting at in this post. Are you making some point about the eggcornicity of “first come, first serve”, or…?

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#10 2013-05-08 21:50:16

DavidTuggy
Eggcornista
From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1780
Website

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

Dixon Wragg wrote:

… someone not familiar with that acorn might interpret “first come, first serve” as “the first to arrive will be the first to serve” (not “to be served”), which would be a correct interpretation of the phrase as worded, but a misunderstanding of the intended meaning. In the examples you give, often the intended meaning will only be understood if the recipient has some cultural knowledge outside the actual words at hand. Hence the need for proper grammar in situations wherein we’re not sure all recipients will understand the idiom.

I would add to the “cultural knowledge” other kinds of contextual knowledge, both linguistic and non-linguistic. This is (from infanthood) what we pick up meanings from. This is what will keep people from adopting the (admittedly) grammatically sanctioned (=approved, not fined!) but contextually inappropriate construal you suggest. They will then (many of them) cast around for a way to interpret that makes sense in context even if it violates a few of those grammatical norms.

phrases like the ones in your examples will be at least briefly confusing in some contexts even to people who are fully conversant in the English language, and making one’s reader stop for a second to figure out what one really meant is crappy writing.

I’m not saying any of this is optimal communication: nor is first come first serve. I too would mark that, in anything intended to be published, as dubious if not crappy. And of course, it was that brief confusion that brought my attention to all these examples. I’m not presenting them as examples of the grammar I prefer.

Your interpretation of “first come, first serve” as “If you come first I/we will serve you first” is, I think, wrong in terms of the literal meanings of the words as written, AND the intended meaning will be clear to nearly everyone.

Which literal meanings of which words? To me first is “literally” (a very problematical descriptor) first, come is literally come, first is literally first, and serve is literally serve. Serve is even literally active rather than passive, as if it were “served”. If “the intended meaning” is something vague enough to include “I/we/somebody will serve you” and “you will be served” as close enough to the same thing, yes the intended meaning will be clear to nearly everyone whichever way it’s activated. (Language, I believe, is full of usages where speaker and hearer don’t have quite the same meaning, but it’s close enough.)

It occurs to me that my characterization of “first come, first serve” as “simply an ungrammatical mishearing that the speaker is using as an idiom that’s not thought of as making literal sense” is not much different from your position, if I’m understanding you correctly, though we may be presuming somewhat different cognitive processes in the perp.

Yes, I’m supposing that for some perps it does in fact make “literal” sense, incidentally violating a grammatical habit of understanding the same subject for contiguous subjectless verbal structures.

But on the one hand, David, you seem to be saying that “first come, first serve”, as used and understood, means the same as “first come, first served”, while on the other hand, in your first post on this thread, you infer significant distinctions between the meanings of the two terms

Again, to clarify, I think they arrive at a near-enough similarity of meaning to not get in the way of communication, but they may well arrive there by somewhat different routes. That is characteristic of eggcorns, and is a large part of why they are so much fun. So yes, it “means the same” in that it can be used in virtually all the same contexts without causing undue problems. This despite the “significant” (though minor: grammar tends to be that!) distinctions in meanings.

distinctions which I don’t see there at all. I guess I’m confused at this point. Anyhow, I’m sure not convinced yet that “first come, first serve” is anything more than, again, an ungrammatical mishearing that the speaker is using as an idiom, which falls short of eggcornicity.

Does “using as an idiom” mean to you “using totally unanalyzed”? I think that idea is quite untenable. (Try using something like “kick the bucket” in different tenses without analyzing it!) To me status as an idiom (established phrase? irregular phrase? what definition are we using?) is rather orthogonal to eggcornicity, though the requirement that eggcorns be standard for the perps means to me that they are to that extent idiom-like (in the perps’ minds).
.
btw, do things like “soft-serve ice-cream” give a precedent for using “serve” to mean “served”?

Last edited by DavidTuggy (2013-05-08 21:54:19)


*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)

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#11 2013-05-09 07:54:33

Dixon Wragg
Eggcornista
From: Santa Rosa, California
Registered: 2008-07-04
Posts: 650

Re: "First come, first serve" instead of "served"

DavidTuggy wrote:

Does “using as an idiom” mean to you “using totally unanalyzed”? I think that idea is quite untenable.

I use the word “idiom” in the sense of a phrase the meaning of which cannot be deduced just from analyzing the meanings of the component words; in a way, it’s synergistic. Its meaning must be learned as a whole rather than deduced from the component words. Ex: “give me a hand”, “I laughed my head off”, “raining cats and dogs”, “see the light”. (I’m not sure what you mean by “using totally unanalyzed”. I hope my answer is helpful.) To me, “first come, first served” is not an idiom in that sense because someone who’s never seen it can figure out the meaning by analyzing the meanings of the component words in light of how they’re put together, without recourse to other info (not even contextual clues). OTOH, “first come, first serve” isn’t likely to be interpreted accurately just by analyzing the component words; understanding the intended meaning requires contextual clues and/or the recipient’s recognizing it as a variation of “first come, first served”.

btw, do things like “soft-serve ice-cream” give a precedent for using “serve” to mean “served”?

I don’t think so, because the parallel structure that compels us to interpret the “first comer” as the subject, not object of the verb “serve” is absent in the “soft-serve” example. Also, “first come, first serve” is a variation on the earlier “first come, first served” (the n-gram shows ”...served” from before 1800, while ”...serve” doesn’t show up until after 1850, and is always way less common than ”...served”), while “soft-serve ice cream” is not a variation on “soft-served ice cream” (which doesn’t show up on the n-gram at all!). So the two cases aren’t analogous.

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