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Posts tagged ‘words. etymology’

Free reign and other eggcorns

What’s an eggcorn?

It’s a new word, introduced in the early 2000’s and referring to the replacement of a rare/archaic word in a phrase by a common and similar-sounding word that may have nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase. It was coined by a guy who claimed that he’d seen acorn written as eggcorn. I’ve never actually seen that (and I kind of doubt it: it’s not like acorn is a rare word unfamiliar to most readers…is it?)

I think our language is impoverished every time someone replaces a meaningful metaphor with meaningless jargon. Besides, it irritates the heck out of me. So today I’m just going to rant about the eggcorns created by writers who apparently had no idea of the context and original meaning of the phrases they butchered. If I went on to list stupid/illiterate word substitutions this post would be way too long. Maybe next week.

Horses and riding

By far the most frequent offender is the substitution of reign for rein, creating phrases like free reign and reign in. I suppose this comes from somebody who has the vague notion that rein in and free rein have something to do with exerting or abdicating control, but who has never actually used reins and can’t figure out what they have to do with it, so… well, reign has something to do with control, doesn’t it? Plug that word in and to hell with the fact that the new phrase doesn’t mean anything.  I foam at the mouth when people substitute reign for rein. You might say my annoyance is unbridled.

Moving on:

Curve your appetite. No, no, no. It’s curb, as in, controlling a horse’s movements with a curb bit. Sheesh, my people didn’t even use curb bits but I still know what the word means.

Straddled with. I saw this only once, but it was weird enough to stop me and throw me out of the story. Was it a typo, or was the writer never saddled with the notion of a saddle?

Nautical and military

I probably should have started with this, because it’s the largest category. Look, I are not a naval or military historian, but at least I’ve been in a sailboat, read the Hornblower novels and researched the Blitz. That shallow pool of knowledge is enough to annoy me at the following eggcorns:

Pass mustard. Evidently the concept of a muster at which you get experiences like an on-the-spot equipment check (which you may fail) is foreign to the writers who perpetrate this eggcorn. You’d think they would at least pause to consider that a discussion of condiments is out of place in the context of whatever they’re trying to convey.

Tow the line. It’s toe the line, folks, from a way of lining up soldiers or sailors for that muster. Writers may be confused by towline, which means a rope or whatever used to tow a vessel. You don’t tow lines, though; you tow other things with them.

Shot over the bough. Fellow Hornblower fans will wince over this one. A shot over the bows is aimed at the other ship, just high enough that you don’t actually hit it. It’s a way of signaling to the folks on the other ship that you’re serious… and that you’re in a position to do serious damage with the next shot.

Way anchor. As far as I know, the meaning of weigh as “lift” survives only in weigh anchor and related phrases (Anchors Aweigh!), but that’s no reason for replacing it with way and creating a meaningless phrase.

Change tact/take a different tact/take a similar tact. The word should be tack. As in, a change of direction. Change tack actually means something; change tact doesn’t. Meaning takes another hit.

Taking flack. Flak is literally anti-aircraft fire and metaphorically criticism, as summarized in the aphorism, “If you’re taking flak, you know you’re over the target.” A flack is a PR person, probably just as annoying but less likely to be fatal. I’m going to be nice and not tell you about the German term that got abbreviated to “flak.” Suffice it to say that they started out with seven syllables and ended up with this one, and aren’t we all grateful for that?

Don’t know much about history

Beyond the pail. I suppose the writer thinks that pale is an archaic spelling for pail. Nope. It’s an archaic word for a fence made of palings. You couldn’t make much of a fence with pails! Beyond the pale means outside a boundary. The Irish may dislike the usage, since the English generally called the English-controlled parts of Ireland the Pale and considered the rest of Ireland to be uncivilized – literally, beyond the Pale. But at least it means something, whereas beyond the pail makes no sense whatsoever.

Straight-laced, straightjacket. It’s strait-laced, meaning tightly laced, and straitjacket. The meaning has to do with confinement, narrow spaces, etc, not with straight lines. You know, like the Bering Strait, which I expect to see rendered as Bering Straight any day now. I guess nobody reads the Bible any more, or they’d know: Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.

The dye is cast. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and said “Alea iacta est,” he wasn’t saying that he had dyed the Rubicon red – or any other color. Die is the singular of dice. He was saying that he’d made his throw and now he’d find out if he won. I guess nobody shoots craps any more either?

Motte/moat. Possibly forgivable, since they both come from the same Old French word. Trouble is, the meaning and spelling changed over time. A motte and bailey castle is built on raised ground (the motte) defended by an enclosing wall (the bailey.) Later the motte came to refer to the dry ring of excavated ground created in building the raised ground, and still later to mean a water-filled ditch surrounding the bailey – but by that time it was spelled moat. To be fair, I’ve seen this only once, but the usage had the unfortunate effect of making me giggle every time I hear the name of a perfectly nice woman who wrote historical romances in the eighties; she put her heroine in a motte-and-bailey castle, which was fine and perfectly in period… until the lady mounted to the top of the keep, overbalanced and fell into the motte.

If you’re going to make your readers giggle, do it on purpose and not out of ignorance, okay?

(Image credit:



Sorry, everyone. I am under the weather, so this is a blast from the past… only I’m not sure it was published here. Might have been on my personal blog. Whatever… I think most of us writer-types have an obsession with words to some extent, and with using anything we learn in our stories.

Word Perfect

Etymology has always been an interest of mine, taking apart a word to see how it works, then putting it back together, and letting it go again, part of a sentence and working beautifully to illustrate my point. Another level of complexity up, and we see metaphor, cliche, tropes, memes, and stereotypes all lined up to carry that point home in fewer words than it would take to explore all of it fresh. Finally the whole picture becomes clear, with thesis, apologia, and plot to give the story, essay, or paper the bones all those words flesh out.

I gave my son, when he was six and old enough for them, my box of legos. He will sit and build endlessly with them, each block discrete, and yet full of possibilities. Words, adjectives, punctuation, similes: these are my lego blocks. I have more colors than he has to create with: mauve, puce, maroon, and chartreuse to begin with. Each part of a sentence goes together with a satisfying click, but there is nothing to stop me taking it all apart again to build something new with these same words and phrases.

So learning a new word is a bit of excitement in my life. Just recently in chemistry class I learned the word zwitterion. It’s a biomolecule that changes polarity based on pH level in the body, but that’s besides the point. It’s just a really cool word. I haven’t looked up the etymology of it yet, and it doesn’t sound either Greek or Latin, which are the languages I would suspect in any other science, but I am learning that chemistry has a language all its own. The English language is an entity all its own, prone to knocking up other languages and bearing their bastard children with words like “gesundheit” which I was highly amused to learn sounds to a non-native English speaking woman I once worked with as “goes in tight,” leaving her totally confused over why a sexual reference was made every time someone sneezed. I suspect most who use that old German word don’t even know what it means, any longer. When I was younger, and you could do such a thing, I would read the dictionary. Now, with the ability to type a word into google, I no longer have the pleasure of rabbit-trailing off from looking up one word to discovering others. Googling for the meaning of zwitterion yields that it comes from the Old High German root zwi-, which means twice. Makes sense, since it essentially has the capacity to switch back and forth.

I also get excited when I learn new techniques. In the Latino Literature class I am taking this semester I learned about found poetry, the art of plucking words and phrases from and existing text to create something new. Making a piece of word art resonate out of the dry depths of a syllabus awakened a sense of joy in writing poetry I had forgotten.

Contemporary echoes

with roots


issues of identity

focus, touching, entangle

across ideas.


Collecting ideas for the Art of China, Japan, and Korea to write a paper, I came across the concept of the four treasures of study. Each component of the creation of a text was considered a work of art on its own. Paper, as I write this essay longhand on a college-ruled notebook, knowing it will be transcribed into an ephemeral document of pixels existing only in the cloud. Brushes, that feather-swift movement over paper or silk, now the blunt tapping of fingers on keys. Ink, once ground on a stone with just enough water to release the depth of color desired by the artist, from a pale shadow wash to the boldest black. Now, I make settings for colors, fonts, drop shadows, kerning, and scaling, my eyes fixed to the screen. The final treasure was the inkstone box, a work of art decorated with symbolic meaning, and object of meditation meant to inspire the artist, whether he be painter, poet, or author. My inkstone is my iMac, old and prone to overheating, but precious and full of memories, creations; in short, my life.

This semester, related to writing, has been more about rediscovery than learning anew. The time to stop, look hard at poetry and metaphor, to explore the whys or word usage, has been invaluable. This rest and refreshment is as good as filling my brain full of new concepts, allowing me to resume my work with a sense of energy and joy in it. I will write my next novel over winter break and I am eagerly ready to start in on it.