Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

Free rein or free reign? shoo-in or shoe-in? Folk etymology (2/3)

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folk_etym_horse

Eddie Mair’s fizzog

My previous blog on ‘false etymology’ related to this one was about fizzog, a word I hadn’t seen or heard in yonks.1 Of course, it was then inevitable that I should immediately stumble across it. In the Radio Times of 21–27 January, the velvet-voiced British broadcaster Eddie Mair wrote in his entertaining hebdomadal column: ‘Basil Fawlty would rightly have enquired of my disappointed fizzog,…’

Google Ngrams  for phizzog/fizzog in British English show a rather erratic pattern.

A second kind of folk etymology

The ‘false’ etymology or folk etymology I was prattling on about in the previous blog is essentially a cosy form of storytelling. Another word for it, as Michael Quinion has pointed out, is ‘etymythology’2.

The kind of ‘folk etymology’ I’m looking at today answers to a different definition.

As the 1897 (i.e. unrevised) OED entry puts it, in suitably constipated style:

‘usually, the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant’.


(I had to read that phrase more than once to relate ‘it’ back to ‘form’, because, when I read ‘words.’ I anticipated some backwards reference [anaphora] to it later on—but that might just be me.)

It’s hard to tell how much weight of thunderous disapproval and tut-tutting ‘perversion’ drew down upon itself in 1897, or whenever the entry was first drafted: however, it is worth bearing in mind that Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis had been published in 1894.

I digress–bigly.


The OED currently provides only one citation for folk etymology by an eminent Victorian Scandinavianist and runologist (I only added that factoid because I have never before written the word runologist, and am unlikely to do so ever again.)

Back to the definition of folk etymology that I started talking about before I so rudely…

Even non-native speakers get the metaphor.

Free-rein is a management style. A non-native speaker gets the allusion.

The point about that kind of etymology is that, not content with telling tall stories, it actually changes language: enough people tell themselves the same story about a word to ‘operationalize’ that story by modifying, or agreeing to the modification of, the form of a word or phrase.

That seems perfectly normal and understandable. We want to make sense of the world and of our language. When we encounter a word or phrase whose form seems nonsensical, we will torture it into a different shape to extract a confession of meaning.

 

The process is one that produces–obviously–visible results. Often it happens with words borrowed from other languages. However, it often also affects ‘native’ English phrases.

For instance, to give something or someone free rein is a phrase that has been around since at least 1640, building on a rein idiom that goes back to Caxton’s day. It means ‘to allow total freedom of expression or action to someone or something’. Here is Caxton:

Caxton tr. G. de la Tour-Landry Bk. Knight of Tower (1971) vi. 19

She [sc. a mother] had gyuen her [sc. her daughter] the reyne ouerlong [Fr. lui avoit laissié la resne trop longue] in suffryng her to do all her wylle.

The rein in question is the strap of leather attached to a horse’s bit or bridle by means of which the rider controls his (or in the UK, at any rate, usually ‘her’) mount’s movements.

90021619.tif

The metaphor in to give free rein to seems may seem blindingly obvious to some. It certainly does to me, and it’s not even as if I’m horsy (though the persistent stiffness in my right shoulder reminds me that I long ago incurred frozen shoulder by once incompetently falling off a gee-gee.) If you give a horse free rein, you hold the reins loosely to allow it to move freely.

Here’s a modern example:

My boss gave free rein to his well-trained sarcasm as he chastised me, but in the end he thought my ineptitude was so funny that he decided not to fire me.

There are other colourful idioms that use the word, such as to keep a tight rein on something or someone, and the reins of power.


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However, that metaphorical link with an essential piece of tack has been lost on many people in our non-equestrian society: the form to give free reign to something is now quite common—although exactly how common depends on where you look.

Confusion reigns–or does it rein?

Ngrams shows a rise over the decades in reign and a corresponding drop in rein. The Corpus of Contemporary American has 82 (22.5%) examples of free reign vs 283 (77.5%) for rein (This includes variants of the phrase such as allow free reign, have free reign, etc.) In the Oxford English Corpus, rein occurs about 38% of the time.

I wonder

‘I wonder what “to give free reign” to something means…’

The folk etymology involved in reign presumably runs something like this: ‘during a ruler’s reign they exercise power, which can range from limited to total. So, if they have free reign, their power must be unlimited’. Extending that interpretation to the metaphor then makes complete sense.

(And, as the Oxford words blog points out, the confusion affects not only free reign, but also, e.g. You mentioned Castro’s illness. Obviously, he turned the X reigns of power over to his brother, because…)

The rein/reign substitution is easy because both words sound identical. That homophony also explains shoe-in for the original shoo-in.

If someone is a shoo-in for a job, election, award (Oh, no! Not flippin’ Adele again!) or whatever, they are certain to get it, barring acts of God.

This jolly little chap, in the Horse of the Year Show, aged 3, must be destined to hold the reins of power.

This jolly chap, in the Horse of the Year Show at the tender age of 3, must surely be destined to hold the reins of power.

While the metaphor involved in free rein is still transparent to many, and must once have been so to all, the semantics of shoo-in are not immediately clear, although they too are horsy.

Going one step back from its equine origins, think of the noises you make as drive away your neighbour’s mangy cat, hens, etc., ‘Shoo! Shoo!’ , while you flap your hands wildly, kick out, and spit and growl (well, I do, anyway) at the unwelcome intruder.

From that comes the verb to shoo, which can mean ‘to frighten something away’, but can also mean ‘to move someone or something in a desired direction’:

I do not churlishly flatten her on to the sofa nor shoo her downstairs.

1973,   M. Amis Rachel Papers, 150.

From that comes the phrasal verb to shoo in, originally US slang, meaning ‘to allow a racehorse to win easily’:

There were many times presumably that ‘Tod’ would win through such manipulations, being ‘shooed in’, as it were.

1908 ,  G. E. Smith Racing Maxims & Methods of ‘Pittsburgh Phil’, ix. 123

And then that verb is nominalized:

A ‘skate’ is a horse having no class whatever, and rarely wins only in case of a ‘fluke’ or ‘shoo in’.

1928,   National Turf Digest (Baltimore), Dec. 929/2

Awww! A cynophilist's little self-indoggence.

Awww! A cynophilist’s little self-indoggence.

Given that almost Abrahamic succession of meanings, is it any wonder that people plump for shoe-in? Here’s my folksy definition, for what it’s worth.

If you or someone are a shoe-in for something, you can ease into it as easily as you can ease your feet into a shoe (with or without the help of a shoehorn) or into a pair of comfy slippers.

Obvious, really.

In CoCA, shoo-in appears nine times, eight of them in spoken data; shoe-in appears 44 times, 31 of them in spoken—, which, of course, raises the issue of transcription error. However, the 13 that are not spoken but written still outnumber the 9 of shoo-in.

Other well-known folk etymologies of this type (standard version first) give us

fazed (phased)
bated breath (baited breath)
just deserts (just desserts)
strait-laced (straight-laced)

to name just a few.

In the next blog, I’ll come back to some other changes wrought by folk etymology.


1 The OED dates yonks to the 1960s. It’s a bit of a memento mori to think that I can remember it coming in, and discussing with my chums/father/brother (not sure which) where it came from.

2 A term, I now discover, thanks to Ben Zimmer, the Sherlock Holmes of the linguistic microcosm, coined in 2004 by a linguist at Yale.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

4 thoughts on “Free rein or free reign? shoo-in or shoe-in? Folk etymology (2/3)

  1. It seems odd that the OED’s first quotation for “yonks” dates from 1968. The google Ngram shows it as about 17 times as popular in and around 1906 than in 1968, and in fact it had a higher share of word occurrences in each of 1808, 1809, and 1810 that it had in 1968.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’d place more trust in OED thoroughness. Apart from the issue of surnames, the problem with Google Ngrams is that much of the material is inaccurately scanned, so, more often than desirable, the word that you think is a hit turns out to be an electronic misprint. I looked at the supposed 1800–1905 occurrences, none of them is our word, and they include Yonks as surname, mis-scannings for Yorks, (egg) yolks, etc., etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I should have thought of mis-scannings, as I see a vast quantity of them (or actually, mis-recognition) in Gaelic books which someone has chosen to attempt text recognition on instead of providing page images. I haven’t come across that problem in English books, perhaps because the English books I want to read or look something up in are all still in print or available in image form or in a not too distant library.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s interesting. Thanks for your reply. I believe the issue is quite well known on Ngrams, and I have often seen for myself the ‘false positives’ that are produced by the substitution of one little letter, n and r, for instance.

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