Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
The users of this eggcorn clearly mean to use kowtow, ” to show obsequious deference” (Merriam-Webster).
“Ohioans cow down to no one”
Headline in “The Plain Dealer”, 07 September, 2008.
The funniest part of this one is that the author is trying to dispel the stereotype of ignorant Midwesterner. Oops!
“Liberals want everyone to cow down to their next tax increase while they destroy everyones liberty.”
Blog talk-back on “McCain, GOP – they’re baaaaack” in the Christian Science monitor, 08 September 2008.
There were many grammatical errors in this poster’s comment, but this was the only eggcorn. Your mother must be so proud!
A really excellent find. Forum members have found a number of reshapings of “kowtow” over the years—“cowtail,” “cow toe”— but I think that this is the best of the lot. What I really like about it is that it’s a rare example of an eggcorn that manages to make good sense of all the parts of the original word; many eggcorns give a meaningful shape to only a portion of the “acorn.” Here, “cow” may imply both brute stupidity and the idea of being easily led, while “down” underscores the sense of submissiveness in “kowtow.” It’s great. And there are plenty of other instances available on the Web—including ones in very well-written posts.
Eggcorns aren’t by themselves a sign of ignorance. To give just one example, the Database article on rein>>reign includes a citation from the play Resurrection by William Butler Yeats—it apparently slipped by both the playwright and his editors. People of every level of education commit eggcorns.
“Cow down” is also an idiom blend, is it not? “Bow down” meets “kowtow.”
Welcome to the Forum, paulb.
Cow down appears to be a blend of “bow down” with “kowtow.” I agree with Pat that it is an unusually ‘thorough’ example, in that both the cow element and the down element contribute to the expression’s overall semantic effect.
(Oh, I see I’m overlapping kem in this observation. “Great minds” and all that?)
I also want to second Pat’s observation that the use of an eggcorn is not necessarily a sign of ignorance, nor is it necessarily a sign of carelessness on par with grammatical errors. We tend to think pretty highly in these parts of the imagination and creativity at work in hatching an eggcorn.
An eggcorn-user may be unfamiliar with the “acorn”—the standard form that the eggcorn partially mirrors—but this is not necessarily so. (See Pat’s and others’ comments on the periphery of the lexicon in the b-line thread.) In any case, the construction of a meaningful item from phonetically similar “bits” shows the creativity latent in most human language use.
I think the influence of “bow down to” here is a great call, but is the result an idiom blend? We’ve tended in the past to consider idiom blends non-eggcorns, and we’ve also tended to use the phrase for a blending of two multi-word phrases—like “a horse of a different kettle,” etc. I have no problem with extending the usual sense of “idiom blend,” but this sure looks like an eggcorn to me.
Many idiom blends are eggcorns, of course. As I mentioned in another thread, for me the key for assigning malaprops as idiom blends or as eggcorns is whether or not the eggcorn might have existed without the blend.
Could “cow down to” exist without “bow down to?” “Cow” could be drawing its justification from “cower,” which also represents a kind of submission. And “down” could be fertilized by the idiom “cower down” or “down” could simply be a sound substitution for the ”-tow” in “kowtow.” So, yes, I think the eggcorn category works, even though I have a strong suspicion that most people who say “cow down to” are in fact blending rather than eggcorning.
Many idiom blends are eggcorns, of course.
News to me—and to most people, I think. The “official” line around here has long been that idiom blends are non-eggcorns. Here’s Chris Waigl in the limb>>lurch article in the Database:
Edited by Chris Waigl and boldly marked as “not an eggcorn” — idiom blends are interesting and amusing, but a different stroke of fish.
Ben Zimmer seems to doubt that idiom blends can be eggcorns but Chris is quite adamant that they simply aren’t.
I haven’t thought too hard about it, and I’m not at all sure that overlap between the categories isn’t possible. But still—“of course” and “many”? I’m waiting for that very long list of examples agreed on by virtually everybody…. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one instance in which it looked to me like idiom-blending and eggcorning were probably both at work: “sore grapes.” But in that instance, it’s clear that the eggcorners and blenders could possibly have arrived there by different routes without being aware of the other possibility.
In any case, “cow down to” isn’t an idiom blend according to any use of the term I’ve ever seen. I guess you could push the definition of idiom in this context to say that “kowtow to” qualifies as an idiom because of the “to”—but I wouldn’t. There’s just one idiom at work here, so there’s no blend. I’d call this an eggcorn that’s probably patterned on the structure of “bow down to.”
At least one way that idiom blends and eggcorns can overlap is that the same sequence of words or morphemes can arise by either means. I mean that what is an eggcorn for one person may be an idiom blend for another. I think that they can overlap in other ways too, but I am sure of this one.
It seems like we’ve had several of these configurations come up in discussions over the past couple of months, but I can’t take time to look for them at the moment. Sorry!
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
“Cow” not only means the animal, which Pat above correctly associated with stupidity and being easily led. And cow down might be related to “cowering,” as kem suggested. But cow is also a verb meaning “to destroy the resolve or courage of ; also : to bring to a state or an action by intimidation —used with into<like too many Asian armies, adept at cowing a population into feeding them — Edward Lansdale>” (from M-W.com). (Ironically, in the example sentence by Lansdale, “cowing” seems to be used as “bullying.”) It doesn’t appear (?) to be related etymologically to the livestock animal, and I think this meaning most closely fits the expression “cow down,” though it sort of turns the verb on its ear by meaning “to be intimidated” or “to have one’s resolve or courage destroyed” rather than “to intimidate” or “to destroy someone’s resolve or courage.”
Last edited by JonW719 (2008-09-11 03:35:59)
Feeling quite combobulated.
Thanks for reminding me, jonW. I had forgotten about that meaning of “cow.” This sense be in play here.
As for “many” idiom blends being eggcorns, I’m only referring, of course, to blends where the substituted word has some audial (or visual) similiarities. “Barking up the wrong alley” can’t be an eggcorn because “alley” and “tree” are just too far apart to lead to a substitution without the influence of the blending idiom. What causes the problem are the cases in which the word or phrase borrowed from the blending idiom and the word or phrase it replaces in the blended idiom lie in the same auditory space. If an argument for eggcornicity can pursued without invoking the idioms to explain the replacement, then in my thinking its an eggcorn whether or not it is also an idiom blend. That’s why “cow down (to)” can be both an eggcorn and a blidiom. Though it is most readily explained as a shotgun marriage of “kowtow (to)” and “bow down (to),” I could also see someone who did not know both idioms transforming the ”-tow” in “kowtow” into “down,” especially if they had invested the initial “kow” with the semantics of “cow” or “cower.”