Fwd: Eggcorn perfection: "Carrot on a stick"/"Carrot and stick"

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Dec 15 01:09:47 UTC 2004

Begin forwarded message:

> From: "Jan Freeman" <jlfreeman at rcn.com>...

> The piece is below; the URL for the specific story is (clumsily)
> http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2004/12/12/
> right_as_reign/,
> but you can get there with
> http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/freeman/;
> for a month after publication, columns are free, no registration
> required.
> The Word Jan Freeman  |  December 12, 2004
> RIGHT AS REIGN (Note -- italics are missing in this version)
> A GLOBE OP-ED writer worries about the government's "sneak and peak"
> powers.
> A Wall Street Journal letter writer complains that parents are
> "fettering
> away" their power. A Web reviewer calls his cruise-ship scrambled eggs
> "runny and unpalpable." A Washington Post report says a union has "free
> reign" over members' retirement accounts.
> All simple mistakes, you might think, but one of them is not like the
> others. The first three errors would be easy to correct: Their authors
> "know" they mean peek, and frittering away, and unpalatable; it's
> doubtful
> they would try to tell you that "fettering away" had something to do
> with
> handcuffs, or "unpalpable" with the feel of the undercooked eggs.
> These are
> misspellings or malapropisms, not signs of underlying beliefs.
> Reign is a different story. The original metaphor is equestrian -- a
> horse
> has "free rein" when it's not being guided or "reined in" by a rider
> -- but
> who knows about reins anymore? Reign, however, is still current, and
> often
> it makes just as much sense: The union with free reign is "ruler" of
> the
> retirement accounts: Reign isn't right -- though someday, if free rein
> goes
> obsolete, it could be -- but it's reasonable in a way that the other
> three
> mistakes are not.
> Last year, some linguists interested in this kind of error decided to
> call
> it an eggcorn, after a pronunciation-based variant spelling of acorn
> they
> found. The word eggcorn, like free reign, can be endowed with a
> semblance of
> semantic logic -- it looks to be a combination of egg and corn, the
> seed
> corn of the oak, perhaps. So an eggcorn is not just a mistake, but a
> mistake
> with a back story.
> In some ways the eggcorn is the prose equivalent of the mondegreen, the
> creative misconstrual of bits of song and poetry. Mondegreen takes its
> name
> from a misheard line in an old Scottish ballad: "They have slain the
> earl of
> Murray/and laid him on the green" was transformed into "and Lady
> Mondegreen." Though every music fan has a collection of mondegreens,
> some of
> the most famous are the Beatles' "the girl with colitis goes by," the
> mysterious "donzerly light" of "The Star-Spangled Banner," and Jimi
> Hendrix's "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy." Eggcorns, though, must
> meet a
> slightly higher standard of plausibility than mondegreens; in lyrics,
> as
> Cole Porter so memorably observed, anything goes.
> Eggcorns are all around us: Get untracked, for instance, which is
> sportswriterese for "get out of a rut, get it together" sounds
> suspiciously
> like an erroneous rendering of "get on track." When I explored the
> history
> of untracked four years ago, readers assured me the meaning was
> obvious. But
> if it's not a mutant, where's the positive form -- tracked, meaning
> stuck or
> held down -- from which this negative must have sprung? Till I find
> that
> tracked, I'm calling untracked an eggcorn.
> Shakespeare's Hamlet said he was "to the manner born," but the eggcorn
> "to
> the manor born" has wide currency, and no wonder: It's almost right
> (though
> it was a castle, not a mere manor), and nowadays, when real estate is
> more
> on our minds than manners, the wrong version is handier. Then there's
> Julius
> Caesar's "The die is cast" -- "Iacta alea est," he supposedly said as
> he
> crossed the Rubicon. This is about gambling, not metalworking, but
> despite
> the Latin, there are folks who doubt it: In the eggcorn version, the
> irrevocable decision is cast in iron.
> My favorite eggcorn, though, is either carrot on a stick or carrot and
> stick. Which one is right? Nobody knows: Both versions are suggested
> in the
> Oxford English Dictionary's citations, but neither is endorsed as
> definitive. The carrot-on-a-stick crowd, who say the treat is suspended
> forever in front of the foolish donkey, cite their uncle's mule or
> "Little
> Rascals" episodes as evidence. Those who think it's "carrot and
> stick," a
> combination of reward and threat, scoff at this cartoonish image. And
> by
> now, both versions are so entrenched that even a definitive source
> wouldn't
> dislodge the pretender.
> You'll find more, much more, in the growing trove of eggcornia at the
> linguistics website Language Log (www.languagelog.org) -- not just
> examples,
> but lessons in eggcorn appreciation as well. Mistakes they may be, but
> eggcorns are also signs of human creativity and resourcefulness, the
> linguists who dig them insist. So send in your favorites, and instead
> of
> denouncing them we'll see how we like the stories they're trying to
> tell.
> E-mail freeman at globe.com.
> © Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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