Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Own worst enemy or own worse enemy? Eggcorns (5)

10 Comments

No punctuation in contractions? Well never accept it, will we?

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

Oh, what a fount of inspiration is that little bird. Watching the Scotland vs. Ireland Six Nations Match on Saturday (10 March) and tweeting at the same time added to the thrills and spills, even if it meant missing a few crucial moments. (Even J.K. Rowling was tweeting. Gosh! Scotland lost abysmally, btw.) And it can throw up the odd language curiosity. One such was ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’.

Yay! Another eggcorn spotted in the wild. This one is not in the ‘famed’ (how I loathe, detest and revile that word, which I only put in so that I could say quite how much…) eggcorn database, so there was no illumination to be found there as I wondered how frequent it might be.

It also piqued my curiosity in other ways.

  1. Is the eggcorn on the increase?
  2. How old is the eggcorn?
  3. How did the eggcorn come about?
  4. Where does the original phrase come from?
  5. Is there a similar idiom in other European languages? and…
  6. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases?

How frequent is the eggcorn?

That, I thought, is going to depend on where you look, surely?

As it turns out, it does, but the differences are not huge. Three different corpora I consulted give figures ranging from just under 2 per cent to 3.63 per cent of all occurrences of both forms.

A Google for “own worse enemy” in quotation marks scores 32,700 against “own worst enemy” at 2,590,000, but I suspect that doesn’t prove anything very much.

Is it on the increase?

I couldn’t tell you. When I entered the search string ‘own worse enemy_INF’ in Google Ngrams, it plotted a seemingly vertiginous rise from the 1980s onwards. But the numbers are so small they don’t tell you very much. If you enter both strings], i.e. …worse… and …worst…, you can see a much gentler rise for …worst…, going back to the nineteenth century.

How old is the eggcorn?

Coming across any eggcorn, one might be tempted to tut-tut, shake one’s head, and condemn modern illiteracy. If you are so tempted, refrain. Like many other eggcorns and ‘mistakes’, …own worse enemy has a venerable history—at least as far as Ngrams goes—1881 being its premiere there.

‘It is not too much to say that the man who has any interest in fruit production or selling in this State, and yet places obstructions in the way of the execution of laws intended to foster that industry, is his own worse enemy, and a blind leader of the blind.’ This seems to have to do with a crisis in the horticultural industry of aphis on pear and apple trees, i.e. probably greenfly and blackfly.

How did/does it come about?

From a meaning point of view, it baffles me. But I’m probably too close to it to see the wood for the trees. I mean, everyone can use the superlative—man’s best friend, I am the greatest, etc. If you use the comparative, as here, what’s the comparison? I’m probably overthinking, though, because there’s another explanation, which is  phonetic, and it seems quite simple. It’s yet another case of final t-/d-deletion, the same linguistic brand that is proud to bring you it’s a doggy-dog world, midrift, coal-hearted and cold slaw. Knock off the final -t of own worst enemy, and you have…

And I’m own worst enemy because I put off blogging, and then weeks go by I don’t post anything.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Own worst enemy or own worse enemy? Eggcorns (5)

  1. I know Jeremy. But as a Scot addressing a English. Fee Fi Foe – er The Scotland v England match a fortnight ago was a stoater! And the appalling loss to, Ireland was mildly ameliorated by watching France mollicate (sp?) England. What racists we Scots can be – shamelessly & inconsiderately Incidentally I was texting like billy- during the 2 Scots matches as a live commentator to a Scottish friend in Italy & my sister driving radio less to Man airport I was hailed the new Wilhemina McLaren by my fans. For sheer tension & emotion of my report

    No back to reading para two onwards. Egg corns. PS I’m turning 60 on 21st March will you send good wishes as I’m not taking it well Tricia Xxxx

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Trish

      I don’t support England, btw, in rugger. Wales, generally, and then Scotland. As Wales are doing badly, I turncoated, and obviously the Sco-Eng match was a joy, but for sporting, not racial, reasons. The Scots played superbly. As for the spelling, the Dictionar o the Scots Leid saith MOLOCATE, v. also molecate, mollicate, mollocate, malacate, so you spelling is one of the alternatives. It’s a shame they don’t show the etymology. I won’t say ‘Age is just a number’.

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    • Tricia, you have my sympathy over your impending birthday. I have dreaded decade-turning b’days since my 40th, when a (male) colleague ‘kindly’ pointed out a few grey hairs. Unfortunately, women in my family go grey /white fairly young. On my 50th — at my birthday lunch —, my daughter informed she was engaged, & my son & daughter-outlaw told me their were expecting their 1st child. On my 59th, I was celebrated & then retrenched by a company that prided itself on being young & hip. Last month I reached the very much dreaded 70, but the weekend was a hoot, including buckets of champers (one bucket, actually, but it was bloody good stuff!)

      I agree, ‘age IS just a number’. Fortunately, despite stray white wisps poking through my hot pink hair, I look 10 years younger than my chronological age. As someone reminded me kindly before the latest birthday: “the alternative to getting older is death”.

      Enjoy your birthday, & may you have many more fun ones.

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    • See what you’ve started with your Scotch funicular, Tricia – see below on ‘stoater’ etc.

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  2. Stoater! I haven’t heard that word in years! There are parts of Antrim where people use it. Unfortunately, age is just a number – about an additonal inch around the waist for every year since I hit forty, in my case … 😦 Enjoy the match – I am certainly looking forward to it!

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    • Stoater! What’s the meaning of such a wonderful word? Is it Scots or Irish or both? I had a Scottish granny, much loved, who gave me “wersh” for needing salt, especially porridge, but any food, really. The other word I use frequently is “skunner” for active dislike. I frequently “take a skunner” to someone, generally a politician. My children know what I mean by these expressions, but good Aussies that they are, don’t use them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Stoater means wonderful. It’s definitely Scots, one of many Scots words that are common in speech in the north of Ireland. I can’t say wersh is ringing any bells but scunnered is a very common word here but with a different meaning. It usually means embarrassed or annoyed here. That’s all from me now. I am badly hung over from the St Patrick’s Day festivities last night …

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      • Hi Sue,

        Please see my comments below on ‘stoater’, etc.

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  3. John (Debunker) and Sue & Tricia – well, the ball has really started rolling with stoater. Suffice (it) to say, that the Ire v. Eng match was an absolute stoater of a match, i.e. totally brilliant. Yes, it’s very Scots, and, I have to take John’s word, also (part)-Irish.

    Related, I presume, are a) verb – to stoat, meaning ‘to bounce’, e.g. the rain was stoating off the roof, and b) (presumably related) stoatin, meaning very drunk, so presumably bouncing around. I can’t find any of those words in the Scots Dictionary, or the OED, though they are here http://www.scotranslate.com/translate/scottish/stoat/1/239#.Wq7YvajFLIU.

    As for scunner, the Collins Gem Scots opines: ‘If something scunners you, it irritates or disgusts you greatly. To be scunnered by someone or something is to be sickened or disgusted by it, either because it is unpleasant or because you are utterly fed up with it… A scunner can be either the feeling of loathing or disgust brought on by someone or something unpleasant (usually in the phrase take a scunner to) , or the person, object or situation which causes this feeling: the weather’s a right scunner, isn’t it?’

    It’s here in the DSL: http://dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/scunner and, on that evidence, goes back at least to 18thC.

    As for wersh, see here: http://dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/wersh; and here http://dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/sndns4100

    I hope the hangover is better, J. Not surprised you were stoatin, after such a fantastic match, and on St…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much, Jeremy & John. What a delight following the links and reading all the citations. My granny had several of O. Douglas’ novels, which I read as a child. Granny lived next door to us, so we went to her after school, & once we’d done our homework we could read any book we liked. Such warm memories; not wersh at all.

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