Posted tagged ‘Gene Weingarten’

Of mondegreens, eggcorns, and malapropisms

June 23, 2015

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post and I agree on quite a bit: We are almost aligned on matters grammatical, theological, and genderological, to make up a word. He even once awarded me the ultimate prize when he was czar of the Style Invitational. It’s nice to share a fair amount with a two-time winner of the Pullet Surprise.

I like making up words. I’ve always figured that’s my right as someone who knows what’s a word and what isn’t. Making up a word can be a way to be funny or to make a point or sometimes both. (Heck, the Style Invitational encourages it—but I digress.)

Recently, when I got into the subject of misunderstood song lyrics, or mondegreens, the idea was that it’s often hard to grasp the right phrases for a variety of reasons, so our brains fill in a best guess from context and culture and other influences, often to comic effect.

Now Gene has opined here and here on sort of an off-key combination of the two: An awful lot of people are unintentionally making up words because they’ve never seen or registered the right ones in written form, they’re trying to sound educated (and having the opposite effect), or they just don’t know any better.

Gene was pretty restrained under the circumstances. Here are some of the circumstances he and his many correspondents have noted:

  • eck cetera (et cetera)
  • conversate (converse—or talk)
  • preventative (preventive—although the former has, alas, become “largely accepted”)
  • firstable (first of all)
  • “right from the gecko” (the get-go)
  • easedropping (eavesdropping)
  • all for knot, all for not (for naught)
  • excape (escape)
  • supposably (supposedly)
  • “for all intensive purposes” (intents and—although who knows?)

Some of these seem to be actual mondegreens (or “eggcorns”—the term used in a 2003 Language Log post—which Grammarist says “has been advanced as a broader term for misheard words or phrases that retain their original meanings”); others are just pompous mistakes that caught on. I sure hope the former don’t morph into the latter. But Gene checked: Believe it or not, according to Google, as of a few weeks ago “easedropping” had more than 20,000 hits.

Eggcorns seem designed to make us laugh. I’ve mentioned before a colleague at a long-ago job who often proclaimed the need to nip some problem in the butt; my boss and I had to stifle a grin every time. Among other examples cited by Grammarist: “It’s a doggy-dog world,” “bad wrap,” “hare’s breath,” and “on tenderhooks.” (How tender can they be?)

Others I’ve heard include “old-timer’s disease” (which makes sense!), “another words” (which doesn’t), “medium strip” (that thing down the middle of the road), and “hold your piece” (which could have its uses).

Are these proliferating? Is the problem getting worse? I followed Gene’s lead and Googled “for all intensive purposes.” Results: More than 135,000,000. Of course, a lot of those are folks like us talking about eggcorns and malapropisms and that time Denise Richards said it on the “Idiots Are People Two!” episode of 30 Rock. But still.

As I said, I sometimes make up words for fun. (And phrases, like “rocket surgery.” But that sort of thing can go wrong.) So does Gene. “There are times when the creative use of technically incorrect language achieves a sort of poetry and is not only to be defended but to be celebrated,” he said online. Then he mentioned that “conversate” reminded him of a favorite lyric, from Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”:

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybelline in a Coupe DeVille …

Now, was he motivatin’? Possibly. I always thought he was motorvatin’. After all, he was driving a car, yes? We have no idea how motivated he was yet, though right away he became very.

Gene and I should discuss this. Maybe we’ll actually agree.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Literally, contranyms, and other grammar silliness

September 11, 2013

Did you know? Grammar can be funny.

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading just the titles of Bill Walsh’s books: Lapsing Into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and the new Yes, I Could Care Less. Walsh is a copyeditor at the Washington Post (I know! Who knew there were any? snark) who led a chat there recently about all kinds of grammatical questions, from new words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online to the contradictory meanings of “sanction.”

First, yay him and yay the Post for having such a chat at all. People care about this stuff, and not just those of us who attempt to make some sort of living at it. As I keep saying, words matter, especially in a wonky city like Washington. Second, yay him for being sensible. “New words can be annoying. Changes in the way people use old words can be especially jarring,” he says. “The good news is that even if ‘literally’ can mean that other thing, you and I and the Washington Post stylebook are not required to use the word that way.”

Random comments:

• In the spirit of parking on a driveway and driving on a parkway, one reader wondered why “sanction” means both to approve of and to punish. I admit I’d never thought about that. Likewise, “sanguine” means both bloody and bloodless, “cleave” means both divide and bring together, and “to dust” can mean either to add or to subtract dust. Walsh calls these contranyms—now there’s a cool word!—words that have two opposite meanings. The Oxford Dictionaries Online have now added “literally” to that number. (Ugh!)

• Walsh says, “To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle, as a flopping fish might.” Oh, boy. Now, if people don’t know the difference automatically, how are they supposed to remember that? Too bad the mnemonic is confusing.

• I always feel for immigrants trying to learn English. What a nutty language. Here’s an example: A reader asks about past participles, trying to understand “shone” versus “shined” (which “just sounds wrong to me”). Walsh replies, “So many past participles are irregular in this language, you’d have thunk the grammar gods were playing a joke on us. It’s hardly surprising that new ones have snuck in.”

• Editors aren’t perfect, even at grammar, and here’s an example: I’ve always had trouble with this sort of construction. Walsh writes, “By the way, I was thrilled to read ‘one of the people who get annoyed.’ Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say ‘I’m one of the people who GETS annoyed.’ Which would be dead wrong.” Eek!

• Circling back to the beginning: Several of Walsh’s readers commented on “literally” becoming not literal in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, a change that has made many people apoplectic. Okay, not literally, but close. One of those people was Gene Weingarten, frequent maker of poop jokes and—by the way—two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

A week or so ago, he weighed in on the controversy. “I am not a language tyrant,” he wrote. “… But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.” Virtual panties, Gene!

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.