cuff/cup and misremembering

RonButters at AOL.COM RonButters at AOL.COM
Tue Dec 23 08:27:52 UTC 2008

Larry's point is really helpful, and again it suggests (to me) that 
misremembering is at least as important as mishearing. 

One files a new compound (e.g., 'blood-pressure cuff') in the brain the first 
time one hears it as the linking (borrowing some semiotic terminology) of a 
signifier (phonological shape) with a "referent" (the thing itself) AND some 
kind of "signified" (semantic parsings of the compound); to reuse it actively, 
one summons up the "signfier" with the "signified" that seems most appropriate. 
Appropriateness is based on a number of things, including semantic factors 
('cuff' is more like what one has in a bloodpressure cuff than 'cup') and 
importance of the word ('cup' is more important than 'cuff' in the frequency sense 
that Larry is talking about, and probably other senses as well). Thus no one is 
likely to recall that it is a "blood-pressure cuss" or a "blood-pressure 
cough" (phonologically about the same distance as "cup") because the semantics are 
too remote--even if one has not seen the device in question. And I suspect 
most people get it right the first time, perhaps because they just file it as a 
unified term ("signified" = "referent") without parsing it much at all.

These issues come up a lot in trademark litigation and branding choices. 
There used to be two grocery stores in Durham, "Fowler's" and "Foster's," and 
people were constantly confusing them because there was almost no semantic 
material to create a "signified" to help one remember which store was downtown and 
which one was out on the Boulevard. Morphological parsing is just not helpful 
here in the way that Larry suggests. However, if Foster's had changed their name 
to "Fooler's" or "Farter's," people would probably have had a lot less 
trouble remembering which was which, even though they are phonologically about the 
same or even closer to "Fowler's" than "Foster's" is.

One other issue is mere misspeaking. True slips of the tongue are more likely 
to happen when the alternatives in question are minimal pairs that differ by 
only one distinctive feature, as with cuff/cup. It is unlikely that anyone 
would be likely to say "blood-pressure cull," even as a slip of the tongue 
(though I suppose someone with a really weird sense of etymology might misremember 
"cuff" as "cul" on the basis of a knowledge of the French "cul" or the Spanish 

In a message dated 12/22/08 2:09:14 PM, laurence.horn at YALE.EDU writes:

> At 10:32 AM -0800 12/22/08, Arnold Zwicky wrote:
> >On Dec 19, 2008, at 8:03 PM, Herb Stahlke wrote:
> >
> >>---------------------- Information from the mail header
> >>-----------------------
> >>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> >>Poster:       Herb Stahlke <hfwstahlke at GMAIL.COM>
> >>Subject:      cuff/cup eggcorns?
> >>
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> >>
> >>I've frequently heard the expressions "rotator cup" and "blood
> >>pressure cup" for "rotator cuff" and "blood pressure cuff."  Google
> >>hits ...
> >>
> >>... why would "cup" replace "cuff"?  Is the use of "cuff" as a strip
> >>or fold encircling the wrist or ankle at the end of a sleeve/trouser
> >>leg falling out of common use so that the resemblence of the BP
> >>instrument no longer obviously resembles one?
> >
> >but "cup" wouldn't make more sense.
> >
> >this is likely to originate from a mishearing, i'd guess.
> >
> But the mishearing might itself be prompted by the opacity of "cuff"
> in this use.  I don't think it's a question of whether "cup" makes
> more sense here, but that specialized and relatively infrequent words
> like "cuff" are less likely to have extended opaque uses/senses than
> frequent words like "cup".  The OED, for example, has many more
> entries for senses and subsenses of "cup" than for "cuff", many of
> which do not relate to a drinking vessel; some relate to shapes that
> may only loosely involve some sort of concavity, not out of the
> question to be relevant in the case of rotator cuffs and blood
> pressure cuffs, and some bear only a metaphorical or metonymic
> relation, as in "competing for the cup", i.e. the championship of
> some sport.  "Cuff", on the other hand, has few separate senses, and
> is almost always (when unspecified) used for the thingy at the end of
> one's sleeve or trousers or the thingy that attaches to one's wrists
> or ankles with a lock.  Granted, the last of these may be more
> transparently related to b-p cuffs (although not to rotator cuffs),
> and indeed I'd wager that patients who are cops or into BDSM are less
> likely to hear "blood-pressure cuff" as "blood-pressure cup".  The
> general correlation is from Zipf:  more frequent words tend to be
> more versatile, i.e. have more--and more opaquely related--senses,
> than less frequent ones.
> LH
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