shuffle off this mortal coil

Classification: English – hidden – citational

Spotted in the wild:

  • As we shuffle on and off this mortal coil (little omlet, folks) in a big rush, they stay still as they can; each day barely a breath. (link)
  • Mantel’s portraits of the two leading characters as well as those of the supporting cast—both on and off this mortal coil—are sharply drawn. (Holtzbrinck Publishers, book review)
  • It has come to my attention that your longtime movie-reviewing companion Gene Siskel has shuffled off of this mortal coil and made his way to that Big Comfy Multiplex in the sky. (, 20 October 2003)
  • Then, if that game prematurely shuffles off of its mortal coil… You have the honors of playing Zombies Ate my Neighbors! (PlanetBlack&White forum, November 15, 2002)
  • The recent ill health of Pope John Paul II has resulted in a news story courtesy of the Chicago Tribune on the actions of the various networks in preparation for the Pope’s eventual shuffle off of this mortal coil. (Ramblings of a Wayward Code Slave, blog entry, February 10, 2005)

Analyzed or reported by:

In her Boston Globe column _The Word_ of October 9, 2005, Jan Freeman reflects on what Arnold Zwicky has called the Recency Illusion: the idea that if you’ve noticed some non-standard or uncommon bit of language only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently (see Arnold Zwicky’s Language Log articles here and here). As an example, she quotes a particular understanding of _shuffle off this mortal coil_, which is in effect a hidden eggcorn:

> The bait was a quotation, in a New York Times book review, from Greg Critser’s “Generation Rx,” saying that pharmaceuticals now promise “everything from guarding us against our excesses of drink, food and tobacco … to extending our very time on this mortal coil.”
> “On this mortal coil?” But when Hamlet speculates about having “shuffled off this mortal coil,” in what must be Shakespeare’s most-quoted speech, we all know he’s not talking about a Savion Glover move-don’t we? “Shuffle off” means “get rid of, dispose of,” says the OED, and “mortal coil” means “the bustle or turmoil of this mortal life.”
> So was Critser’s misunderstanding a new one? Of course not. To judge by Google hits, hundreds of people think “shuffling off this mortal coil” involves going somewhere on foot. Even in edited sources, people have been getting it wrong for nearly 20 years.

The eggcorn relies on an interpretation of _shuffle_ as “move or walk in a sliding dragging manner without lifting the feet” (Where did he shuffle? Off this mortal coil.) instead of the verb-plus-particle _shuffle off_ “get rid of, dispose of” (What did he shuffle off? This mortal coil.)

For hidden eggcorns, which do not involve a change in spelling, we often need indirect evidence of the writers’ understanding of the expressions they use. This can come in the form of examples that use _on and off this mortal coil_, the double preposition _off of_, or synonyms of _shuffle_, such as in the following examples:

* I suppose if I had to stagger off of this mortal coil, “beer potomania” wouldn’t be such a bad way to go (compared to most of the other diseases in this book). (Amazon book review)
* Tell me something - does he get to sleep with Elizabeth Shue before he lurches off this mortal coil? (Barry Glendenning, Guardian Unlimited Football, June 20, 2004 )
* There are numerous surveys that suggest that women who live alone spend their time skipping gaily through the tulips and sipping at crystal streams of joie de vivre until they eventually slip off this mortal coil with a gentle sigh of satisfaction between snow-white linen sheets, while men forget how to wash, walk and talk and are eventually killed by MRSA from their own underpants and expire in a sticky heap of jazz mags and burger buns. (Lucy Mangan, Guardian Unlimited, March 2, 2005)

| 3 comments | link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/10/10 |

the die is cast

Classification: English – hidden – citational

Spotted in the wild:

  • Unlike in a machine shop, where a part being machined can be checked for the dimensions during the process and corrected until the required results (dimensions) are obtained, in an iron foundry, metal derives its properties during cooling, and measuring and making changes during this period is not possible. Thus, once the metal is poured into the mould, the die is cast, literally! (Industrial Heating, Oct 01, 2002)
  • Mr. Pendlebury just happens to operate a modest die casting business, one whose specialty is producing paperweights, one perfectly suited for Holland’s needs. Soon the die is cast (so to speak), and the pieces are in place, but, as everyone knows, even the best-laid plans are subject to disaster once in the implementation stage as the human element is always the most unpredictable. (Amazon customer review, May 11, 2005)

Analyzed or reported by:

Arnold Zwicky quotes an e-mail from Keith Ivey:

> When I first heard the phrase “the die is cast”, I thought it meant that a mold for stamping out coins (for example) had already been produced from molten metal and thus set and could not be changed. I later learned that it referred to throwing a gaming cube. Apparently I’m not alone in having had this misapprehension.

He quotes a web site, supplied by Keith Ivey, too, on which someone states the same conviction about the expression’s origin and meaning:

> Perhaps you have heard the phrase ‘the die is cast’ or ‘the die has been cast’. This has nothing to do with gambling or dice; instead, it refers to a mold (die) which has been cast (made).
> Once the mold is made, everything which comes from it, will have the shape of the mold. ‘The die is cast’ thus states that a pattern has been laid down, and thus subsequent events will conform to the pattern. This phrase lends itself to assumptions about the future being predictable, once patterns are seen in the present.

It is easy to find other writers being unsure about this point:

> The Phrase Finder lists the origin of ‘The die has been cast’ as: ‘The die here is a dice. Julius Caesar is supposed to have said this when crossing the Rubicon.’
> However, my understanding was that ‘die’ in this case refers to the die used for forming material, and that ‘cast’ here does not mean ‘throw’ but rather ‘to form (molten metal etc.) into a particular shape by pouring into a mold’. So basically once the metal has been poured into the die it will set pretty quickly, and the shape (outcome) will be fixed. (link)

“Hidden” eggcorns are, in their most basic form, reanalyses of the meaning of a word or expression without any change in spelling. This lack of orthographic evidence makes it harder to find indisputable examples. It is quite possible that the authors of the two occurrences that are listed above were aware of the origin of the idiom and just decided to play on the words: we can’t know what they thought. It is, on the other hand, clear that, given the amount of uncertainty about the expression’s origin, genuine hidden eggcorn examples of _the die is cast_ must be out there.

See also _the dye is cast_.

| 6 comments | link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/10/10 |

desert » dessert

Chiefly in:   just desserts

Variant(s):  (eat one's) just deserts

Classification: English – hidden – nearly mainstream

Spotted in the wild:

  • And, at the same time, if someone committed a murder and confessed to a priest in hopes of salvation/forgiveness/etc. one would hope they have the balls to walk up to the plate and eat their just desserts. (, July 24, 2001)
  • I mean, for the past 500 comics I’ve been waiting for Thief to eat his just desserts…and every time that he’s come close it never happend. But now…when he came close to being right… Oh god. (Nuclear Power Forums, July 14, 2005)
  • But the gutless little fuckin coward probably wouln’t come out of his hole.No different than sadam or osama.I just believe this puke needs to eat his just desert before, he slitters his way of this rock. (blog comment, February 10, 2004)
  • This is no formulaic D&D romp; you won’t find invincible heroes and stalwart dwarves singing about gold, you won’t see fragile maidens swooning over a stout swordarm, you most certainly won’t reach a happy ending, with all the loose ends tied and all the bad guys eating their just desserts while the good guys pair off and ride into the sunset. ( customer review, July 21, 1999)

Analyzed or reported by:

_Get one’s just desserts_ has been suggested as a potential eggcorn a number of times. It is not an unproblematic reshaping, however: inadvertent double/single consonant misspellings are extremely common, as this web search shows. I have therefore collected examples that include further circumstantial evidence that the author thought of _dessert_ as something edible. This is why the occurrences employ the verb _eat_ instead of _get_. As always, it is necessary to weed out intentional puns.

When the context is that of a meal, but the word spelled _desert_ (correctly for the idiom, but an error if the target is _dessert_), we have either an inadvertent slip or a writer who remembers their spelling lessons for _getting one’s just deserts_. The eggcorn then becomes effectively a hidden one.

| 2 comments | link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/09/21 |

bite » byte

Chiefly in:   sound byte

Classification: English – hidden

Spotted in the wild:

It doesn’t help any that “byte” itself is a pun on “bite” and is accompanied by “nybble” (for five four bits) and a few other words in the same vein. “Sound byte” seems to me to be born of our increasinly digitized world; it’s probably more common online than offline.

I have actually used this myself at least once that I know of: a few years ago I was a regular on an Australian media-watching newsgroup and inadvertently used the eggcorn to ask for more information about something I’d seen the night before. It was immediately noticed and commented upon.

Curiously, while googling for a book using the term, I found it used and defended in “Philosophical Practice” by Lou Marinoff:

My pet homonymic peeve—again symptomatic of a culture rendered senseless by fuzzy speech—is named “sound bite”. You think you know what this means, don’t you? If so, then you probably understand its reference, but not its sense. That’s because “sound-bite” is nonsense. The proper name, whos refcerence bears the intended sense, is the homonym “sound-byte.” In the technical language of digital computing, a “byte” is a chunk (or word) of data, typically eight bits in length, which is processed as a single unit of information.

I think but cannot conclusively prove that Marinoff and other defenders of this eggcorn are mistaken about the origins of “sound bite”; I remain confident that it predates readily-available digital storage of sound by some time, and in any event a single byte is not very much information at all, and definitely not enough space to store, say, a 10 or 30-second sound recording from a politician or talking head.

| 9 comments | link | entered by nooks, 2005/08/28 |

amused » bemused

Classification: English – hidden

Spotted in the wild:

  • I went into a small grocery store one day looking for a roll of aluminum foil. I couldn’t seem to find it anywhere so I asked the clerk at the checkout counter who listened intently to my request and then said, with a sudden, bemused smile on her face, “Oh, you must be looking for ALUMINIUM foil!” I guessed that I was, yes, I said, with a bemused smile of my own. (link)

Analyzed or reported by:

  • Bill Walsh at Blogslot (link)

The [American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition](…) has the following entry for _bemuse_:

> TRANSITIVE VERB: Inflected forms: be·mused, be·mus·ing, be·mus·es
1. To cause to be bewildered; confuse. See synonyms at daze.
2. To cause to be engrossed in thought.

This is a hidden eggcorn, which means that there is no way to determine with total certainty whether a writer meant _dazed_, _bewildered_, _thoughtful_, or _slightly and quietly amused_. In many cases, however, the context provides some evidence that amusement is a more salient quality of the situation described than thoughtful confusion.

| Comments Off link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2004/12/08 |