all that and a (mere) bag o' shells

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Mar 7 04:38:38 UTC 2006

On 3/6/06, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
> A candidate for the eggcorn database?
> This appeared in last Sunday's A Word A Day letters column:
> ========
> From: Philip Viener (
> Subject: Re: A.Word.A.Day--bagatelle
> During this last American football season, I heard a television sports
> commentator refer to the fine one player was assessed by the National Football
> League for some on-field misconduct as being a "mere bag of shells" to him. An
> amusing malapropism, but I did find myself liking the mis-spoken phrase.
> There's a certain whimsical quality that makes it equivalent to the original
> word. Of course, in some cultures, a bag of shells would have significant
> value, so it wouldn't work everywhere.
> =========
> I found some additional examples on google, e.g.
> uncounted relationships have survived an age gap that makes yours
> with Meryl seem like a mere bag of shells
> and there are some references to a Honeymooners episode that plays on
> this malapropism/eggcorn:  Ralph is competing on the (imaginary) quiz
> show "The 99,000 Answer" in the category of popular songs and after
> going out on the first question pronounces:  "$600?  A mere bag of
> shells."
> But it seems (to me) as though many of the googled instances are
> unselfconscious innovations independently arrived at.

As a humorous alteration, it's pretty old...

1901 _Washington Post_ 25 Aug. 22/1 He took the rubber bands off the
wad, and he had to go deep into it, at that, skinning over tens and
twenties, and even fifties, before he could find such a mere bag o'
shells as a two-spot.
[HNP Doc ID 257374172]

Perhaps this is a case of one generation's joke being taken seriously
by the next generation.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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