Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


Champ at the bit or chomp at the bit? Which is correct?

4-minute read


  • Chomp at the bit appears more often in most modern written sources than champ…;
  • Dictionaries make no comment about chomp’s correctness;
  • A small survey suggests that most people would edit chomp to champ;
  • I comment on it in my Fowler, but only one other usage guide does;
  • Insisting that champ is the only correct form seems to be a ‘thing’.

On one of my posts a reader commented how much it annoyed them when people said chomp at the bit rather than champ at the bit and suggested I should blog about it. So here goes.

To quote verbatim, my correspondent (there must, surely, be a more up-to-date word for someone who comments on a blog post) wrote: ‘I hear a lot of people who say “chomping at the bit” rather than “champing at the bit” which whether or not it has come into common use is wrong and smacks of a poor education and a poor vocabulary.’

That raises two obvious major questions.

Q1: Has chomp … in fact come into common use?

In other words, how common is it vs champ?

(And, might there be ‘regional’ variation?)

Q2: Who decides whether it is ‘wrong’? What do they say?

It also raised in my mind…

Q3: What do editors and others who care, think?

And, of course,

Q4: What do these words mean, and what is the history of and relation between the two forms – and any others, such as chafing.

I’ll answer the first three each in two parts, a short answer and then a longer one for anyone who wants more information. For the sake of (relative) brevity in this post, Q4 requires a separate post.

Q1: Has chomp come into common use?

Short answer:

Yes. And in most varieties of English it is more often used than champ.

Longer answer:

It depends where in the English-speaking world you’re talking about, and also what kind of writing.

I consulted six sets of data: The Oxford English Corpus February 2014, Oxford Monitor Corpus April 2018, the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, the Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), the Corpus of Historical American (COHA) and the Hansard corpus.

According to the Oxford English Corpus data consulted, while in February 2014 chomp.* at the bit was more frequent than champ.*, (414:310) the picture varied by region.

(The .* means all forms of the verb, although 88 per cent are continuous tenses in any case, i.e. with the form champing/chomping.)

In BrE chomp.* was less frequent (97:121) but in U.S. English the opposite was true (201/102). Canadian usage was in line with U.S., while Australian was closer to British (chomp.* 15: champ.* 25).

However, by the time of the April 2018 Monitor Corpus, things had changed for BrE: chomp.* was now commoner (224:174). Whether this is an indication of increasing U.S. influence it is impossible to say. For the U.S., the difference between the two forms had increased (876: 336), but for Australia the difference had stayed almost exactly the same in percentage terms (chomp.* 40: champ.* 68). Overall, the ratio was 2,245:1,143.

Just to confuse matters, there is another idiom, which is “get the bit between one’s teeth”, as this cartoon illustrates. That’s when the horse moves the bit away from where it normally sits and takes control. That’s why Trump’s “riders” are pulling so hard: he’s outa control.

The three other data sources consulted are from the Brigham Young University corpora. The Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), which covers 20 different country varieties of English, showed chomp.* to be more than twice as frequent (377:152) and to be more frequent in every country except Australia. But even there, the gap had narrowed (chomp 24: champ 32).

The NOW corpus showed chomp.* to be about 57 per cent or so commoner than champ, that is, by a smaller margin than the GloWbE data (1415:901). My hunch is that because this material is written by journalists of various kinds, who are more likely to have an idea of what is considered to be correct, they are more likely to ‘correct’ themselves, in contrast to the GloWbE writers, who can be anyone anywhere.

Then, to see what a historical corpus showed, I looked at COHA, which is the largest such corpus available. It showed chomp.* at six occurrences, and first appearing as late as the 1980s, and champ.* at 20 and first appearing in 1880.

Finally, the Hansard corpus, i.e. a corpus of British parliamentary proceedings 1802–2005, produces an intriguing result. A search for verbs preceding the string at the bit produces 49 examples of champ from the 1930s onwards, seven of chafing, and one each of straining and pulling but absolutely none of chomp. Does this mean that the honourable members to a person believe it is the correct and only version? Or could it be that the transcribers have corrected what was said?

Q2: Who decides whether it is ‘wrong’? What do they say?

Short answer:

Well, each of us can (and often does in practice) decide if we think a particular use of a word, phrase, etc., is wrong, but it is generally dictionaries and usage guides that are taken as objective judges of such matters.

The OED, the Oxford Online Dictionary, Collins and Merriam-Webster make no comment about the correctness or otherwise of chomp.

Longer answer:

It is not listed in either the Cambridge Guide to English Usage or the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage. I added it to my edition of Fowler and noted there that chomp is more frequent than champ in the corpus I consulted at the time and sententiously ended the note with ‘some purists will see it as an egregious mistake, even though it is recorded in dictionaries’.

It is also mentioned in Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage.

The dictionaries consulted deal with it as follows:

  • Oxford Dictionary Online: just gives the phrase chomp at the bit under chomp.
  • OED: In a 2007 draft addition, notes ‘Chiefly  Amer. to chomp at the bit: = to champ at the bit’. In other words, it says it is the equivalent of champ, but refrains from judgement on the phrase itself. However, the whole (1972?) entry for chomp is headed by the rubric formerly dialect and U.S., which could be construed as relegating U.S. English to the status of a dialect (!), though I’m quite sure this is not what the lexicographers meant.
  • Collins: the dictionary for learners, Cobuild, lists chomp at the bit without comment.
  • However, the dictionary for mother-tongue speakers for British English does not list it under chomp, but the dictionary for U.S. English does.
  • Merriam-Webster Unabridged shows both versions without comment.
  • However, the online version cross-refers the relevant meaning of chomp to the entry for the verb champ while specifying that chomp in that meaning is usually in the phrase chomping at the bit. This could either be an example of lexicographers being economical, or a subtle implication that champ is preferable.

Q3: What do editors, and others who care and are presumably vocabulary-rich, think?

Who knows?

A simple way would be to ask them whether they would leave it or emend it when editing.

I tried that.

In a tiny survey on Twitter, 9 out of 12 people said they would change it.

17% I’m not U.S. & wld leave

42% I’m not U.S. & wld change

08% I’m U.S. & wld leave it

33% I’m U.S. & wld change it

There is also the poll at the head of the blog. Please take part.

I’ll blog separately about the history and meaning of the two words.

Merry Christmas, btw!



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Seamlessly or seemlessly? No contest. It’s seamlessly.

3-minute read

This month’s comedy club show was seemlessly held together by Liverpudlian compere Silky (by name, not by nature),

notes a British English website.

…calls for Mr Molloy to explain, changed seemlessly to calls for him to resign once his explanation of a simple, honest error became public,

an Irish newspaper recounts.

Dear authors and writers all, it’s SEAMLESSLYe.g.

to integrate users’ disparate supply-chain systems, so that buyers and sellers can communicate seamlessly with each other. 

Any decent spellchecker ought to spot the mistake.

That said, you are far from alone in your mistake, although it’s very much a minority trend. (The News on the Web corpus has 75 vs. 27,018 examples, a minuscule percentage. But that’s as it should be, since that corpus contains journalism. The iWeb corpus of general language has 777 vs. 98,078.)

What does seamlessly mean?

According to the Oxford Online Dictionary’s elegantly eloquent definition: “Smoothly and continuously, with no apparent gaps or spaces between one part and the next.” That entry contains plentiful examples, such as:

Each song is seamlessly integrated into the film.

The conversation flowed seamlessly.

History has a way of ignoring such insolent details, of weaving them seamlessly into its larger narrative fabric.

And here’s another apposite example, this time from Collins:

The story flits between the two different eras that seamlessly link together as it progresses.
Sun, 2016

Seamlessly‘s a metaphor. A seamless garment, for instance, is one which consists of a single piece of material, with no seams.

(The seamless garment metaphor was common in 17 C, is enshrined in a certain trend in current religious ethics and refers to a biblical quotation.1)

Note the soldiers, bottom right, casting lots for Christ’s raiment. Fresco from Stavronikita Monastery, by Theophanes the Cretan, 1545-1546

According to the un-updated OED entry, none other than Emily Dickinson was the first to use it figuratively, metaphorically, in 1862:

As if some Caravan of Sound Had parted Rank, Then knit, and swept—In Seamless Company.

Then the metaphor became more widespread, especially in describing history as a seamless web (1898), a phrase I seem to remember first encountering at university. That phrase gives a new twist to the metaphor and still seems to be in current use:

Such is the unity of all history that any one [sic] who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web.
F. Pollock & F. W. Maitland History of English Law (ed. 2) I. i. i. 1

In place of these dogmas, Quine proposes a metaphor that our system of beliefs is a seamless web. (2000)

And Auden used it in Under Sirius (1949):

And last night, you say, you dreamed of that bright blue morning,
The hawthorn hedges in bloom,
When, serene in their ivory vessels,
The three wise Maries come,
Sossing through seamless waters, piloted in
By sea-horse and fluent dolphin:

[To soss is defined by the OED as “to splash in mud or dirt”.]

And, finally, seamlessly the adverb premieres in 1906:

The whole web is woven seamlessly and without break.
G. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody

Now, seemlessly wants to mean the same thing. Or rather, its exponents want it to. And I think it’s easy to see why this eggcorn exists – though it is not yet recorded in the eggcorn database.

If you asked someone to explain why seemlessly should mean “without a break”, I guess they’d say, “Well, you use it when one thing blends into another so smoothly that it doesn’t even seem to be changing, and so you don’t notice it. Nothing seems to be happening. The process is “seemless.”

Something like that, anyway.

The only problem is it’s not a “word.” That is, no dictionary recognizes it.

But hang on! “There IS an adjective seemless”, someone cries. (First used in The Faerie Queene.)

The only problem is it means “unseemly; shameful; unfitting”. Well, not the only problem. It’s also “archaic”, which is dictionary-speak for “Nobody uses it any more”. But if they did, seemlessly would mean “shamefully”.

Not really the meaning people want.

When I told my partner my version of the explanation for seamlessly, they suggested – being much cannier than me – seenlessly. Sure enough, it exists, but with a piffling 96 hits on Google is very much under the radar at the moment. From a review on Amazon:

I love how the author seenlessly incorporates “big words” into sentences that students can identify the meaning through context clues. 

But here seenlessly means “invisibly”, I suspect.

1 John, 19:23-24

23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.
24 They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.


Is it “one and the same” or “one in the same”?

Lesedauer: 4 min

Microsecond summary

One in the same” will generally be considered wrong. No dictionary recognizes it. You should avoid it and use the standard form of “one and the same.”

Apart from shoring up my prejudices (a function it performs I suspect for so many people) Twitter occasionally lobs a new (to me) eggcorn my way.

One it flung at me recently is “one in the same”.

It should be “one and the same”.

What does “one and the same” mean?

As the Collins Cobuild dictionary helpfully defines it, “When two or more people or things are thought to be separate and you say that they are one and the same, you mean that they are in fact one single person or thing.”

You use it mostly, but not exclusively, as the complement of to be, in the latter’s various forms, as these examples suggest.

Luckily, Nancy’s father and her attorney were one and the same person.

I’m willing to work for the party because its interests and my interests are one and the same.

I grew up equating sex with love, believing them to be one and the same.

As you can see, the phrase can either be used on its own or with a following noun (person, 1st e.g. above.)

The nouns people most often use with it, other than person, are time and thing, but, as the last two examples below show, you can use it with any noun appropriate to your meaning.

They [sc. beaver dams] are at one and the same time parts of beaver societies and parts of beaver nature.

…that is to say, that sexuality and gender are not one and the same thing, and their complex interaction not only varies from one society to the next but also within a given culture.

It is possible that different paradigms introduce different ways of classifying one and the same set of objects.

The imagination must carry me out of myself into the feelings of others by one and the same process by which I am thrown forward as it were into my future being.

Hazlitt, Essay on the Principle of Human Action, i, 1–2.

Who uses it? Why do people get it wrong?

It crops up most frequently in formal or technical prose in the areas of the Arts and Humanities and Religion and Law. That means it is not common in general writing or speech, which helps explain why people convert it to “one in the same”.

And the speech mechanism of that conversion is not far to seek: in speaking, the phrase will be pronounced “one ’n’ the same”, and people who have never come across it in writing will interpret that ‘n’ as ‘in’.

Does “one in the same” make any sense?

Merriam-Webster online suggests that it doesn’t and argues that it would have to refer to a Russian doll-type arrangement.

I’m not so sure.

At the back of my mind, for that use of “in” I hear an echo of religious, specifically Christian, specifically Trinitarian, usage, i.e. God the three in one, but perhaps that’s just me.

(Can someone hear things at the back of their mind? Only asking. Ed.)

On a more mundane level, it must, surely, be influenced by advertising phrases highlighting the benefits of a product, such as being a “2-in-1 laptop and tablet”.

Other than that, I can’t fathom what it means to people who use it. I’d have to ask them.

It has been argued that it makes sense if you think of one thing being inside a clone of itself. In the case of people, though, that explanation could suggest (auto)cannibalism. Eeek!

Surprisingly, though, it is used in the same sort of circles that use the correct form, judging by the examples in the eggcorn database, e.g. Any time you visit our service desks, you will have the agreeable impression that helping the library and staying young are one in the same.

(UC Berkeley, Annual Report of the Libraries, Fall 2001).

The Merriam-Webster usage note also cites examples from publications which one can’t help feeling ought to have editors who know better, e.g.

a politician whose public and private persona seem to be one in the same.
— Newsweek, 8 Sept. 2017

Where does “one and the same” come from?

It is a calque, or translation of the Latin unus et idem, meaning, erm, “one and the same”, recorded as being used by Cicero and Horace.1 Piquantly, its first citation in the OED is from a translation from Latin, possibly by Cranmer, of Edward Fox and others’ treatise about the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage to his brother’s wife (Catherine of Aragon) titled The determinations of the moste famous and mooste excellent vniuersities of Italy and Fraunce, that it is so vnlefull [sic] for a man to marie his brothers wyfe, that the pope hath no power to dispence therewith.

One and the same selfe man may be bothe a preest and a maryed man.

The phrase occurs 451 times in the OED, which gives some indication of its embeddedness in English.


How often do people muck it up?

That depends on where you look. In a corpus of academic journals (as one might hope but not necessarily expect these days) the dunderhead version is vanishingly small, 7 vs. 1994 (i.e. less than 0.5 per cent). In a general corpus (OEC, 2014) the proportions change to 192 vs. 3,183 (i.e. 6 per cent). And in a more recent corpus, 750ish vs. 4,283 (i.e. 17.5 per cent).

A few people are even using it slightly differently, in comparisons to mean “exactly the same as”:

Fructose is the sugar that’s prevalent in fruits, and it’s one in the same as cane sugar, which is simply much more concentrated.

And then there’s the song by Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato (whoever they might be; I only found it by googling). They spell it correctly, but then others misspell it.

As M-W poignantly pleads “Please try to avoid misinterpreting this venerable phrase.”

1 From Horace’s Epistles we have …ego, utrum Nave ferar magna an parva, ferar unus et idem.

I, whether I be carried in a large or a small boat, shall be carried as one and the same man.

Which, as the motto of the Royal Navy’s training establishment HMS Collingwood is sexed up and, at one and the same time, dumbed down to ferar unus et idem, “I shall carry on regardless”. A noble and uplifting sentiment, somewhat undermined by the existence of the film Carry On Regardless.


Underhand or underhanded methods? Another U.S./Brit divergence.

Lesedauer: 4 min


  • In the U.S., for the meaning ‘marked by secrecy or dishonesty’ underhanded is by far commoner than underhand.
  • Underhand is also used in the U.S. with that meaning, but only rarely. Much more often it has a physical meaning.
  • In the UK, underhand is much more often used to convey that ‘dishonest’ meaning, but underhanded is also an option.

Underhanded or underhand?

I’ve been reviewing someone else’s translation from Spanish of a major Latin American classic. That puts me in the luxuriously smug position of avoiding the donkey work and hard grind yet being able to point out and wag the finger that the translator has, for example, taken an idiom quite literally, word for word, and come up with nonsense.

Having now found so many such schoolboy howlers, I examine every word against the original Spanish with hawk-like severity.

So it was that when I came across the phrase ‘underhanded methods’, I paused.

Shurely shome mishtake’, I thought, to use that old Private Eye chestnut. You’ve got carried away again, dear (American) translator. The word is underhand.

Except it’s not…if you’re American, as I was soon to discover.

In fact, if you’re American, underhand will probably sound daft and underhanded normal, and vice versa, if you’re British.

What say the dictionaries?

Go to Merriam-Webster online, look up underhanded as an adjective, and you will find it rather beautifully defined as ‘marked by secrecy, chicanery, and deceptionnot honest and aboveboard’ (pedants, please note that U.S. spelling of above board as a solid [a term that sounds vaguely lavatorial; I digress]).

Go to underhand (adj.) in the same dictionary, and you will find it given three meanings: 1. = underhanded, 2. done so as to evade notice, and 3. made with the hand brought forward and up from below the shoulder level.

e.g. an underhand serve.

(Quite why underhanded does not share meaning 2., I won’t investigate.)

The above two M-W entries reflect U.S. usage rather accurately. Underhand can be used to mean ‘not honest’, as in underhand methods, but very much more often it is used, as the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows, to mean ‘underarm’.

Similarly, if you go to Oxford Online, the U.S. version, and look for underhand, the first meaning given is the ‘(Of a throw or stroke in sports) made with the arm or hand below shoulder level’ one, and the ‘dishonest’ meaning is given only third. The second meaning is ‘With the palm of the hand upward or outward’ as in underhand grip.

Underhanded is defined along the same lines as M-W: ‘Acting or done in a secret or dishonest way’.

If you go to the Oxford Online UK version, it clearly reflects this Atlantic divide: the first meaning for underhand is the ‘dishonest’ one, and the second meaning is a (less frequent) synonym in British English for underarm. If you go to underhanded you get the message ‘another form of underhand.’

‘The science bit’

Dictionaries seem to have got the measure of these differences.

In confirmation of what they say, in the OEC (Feb. 2014) underhand as adjective appears nearly one thousand (977) times, of which 500 are British English and a mere 137 U.S. English. Of those 500 British ones, all but a handful are to do with ‘dishonesty’.  Of those 137 U.S. ones, hardly any are to do with ‘dishonesty’, and the most frequent phrase is underhand grip.

Similarly, the Brigham Young University Corpus of Contemporary American shows, for example, underhanded tactics 22 times, but underhand tactics never, whereas underhand grip appears 34 times.

Finally, the Hansard Corpus – of British English, obviously – with data from 1803 to 2006, has underhanded 68 times but underhand 1216 times. So underhanded is a possibility, but not a common one, e.g. from 2002,

the Trade Union side wished to record its dissent over the deceitful and underhanded way in which this issue has been handled.

(This is by a Scottish MP, which may or may not have a bearing.)

The history bit

Underhand as an adverb goes back to Old English (c. AD 1000) in a now obsolete meaning.
The adjective came later, 1545, in the physical meaning, in this case, relating to archery, and 1592 in the meaning ‘secret, clandestine, surreptitious’. The meaning of ‘not straightforward’, which is an integral part of its modern meaning, did not appear until 1842, in Cardinal Newman’s letters:

1842   J. H. Newman Lett. & Corr. (1891) II. 393

I am often accused of being underhand and uncandid.

Underhanded as adverb makes its appearance in 1822/23, in two different meanings, but the adjective first appears in Dickens, according to the OED, in the meaning ‘surreptitious’ in Bleak House (1853):  xxxvii. 370

Under-handed charges against John Jarndyce.

and in the meaning ‘not straightforward’ in Our Mutual Friend (1865) I. ii. vii. 232

That’s an under-handed mind, sir.

Lady Dedlock, Esther Summerson and ‘Charley’ (Charlotte) in the wood. Phiz’s illustration from Bleak House.



Twitter never fails to disappoint. Or should that be ‘never disappoints’?

While reading something online the other day I came across the phrase Twitter never fails to disappoint. The context made it clear that the meaning intended was ‘Twitter never disappoints’. This is the exact opposite of the logical reading that ‘Twitter always disappoints.’

That example reminded me of one from years ago. A tourist brochure for a seaside resort promised something along the lines of ‘A visit to X-on-Sea never fails to disappoint.

And then, slap my thigh, today, when I was checking out restaurants for my partner’s birthday, what did I come across but this glowing recommendation: I’ve been going to X Bistro in Y since it opened, which was not yesterday, and I can safely say that their food has never failed to disappoint?

(Which shows that the phrase is not a completely frozen idiom, because it allows past tense.)

What is going on that makes a structure mean the opposite of what the speaker intended? And how do other speakers manage to extract the correct meaning? The discussion on the English StackExchange site shows that the phrase can certainly cause confusion.

Multiple negations cause problems

It’s all to do with the number of negations, and how the human brain goes into meltdown when trying to process too many. Having two negations might be the limit to easy intelligibility.

Such negations can be explicit (not, no, nobody, never, etc.) or they can be implicit (fail, ignore, avoid, etc.). If we analyse our phrase in terms of negation, we’ll find three:
• to fail to do something is not to do it = negation1 (explicit)
never adds negation2 (explicit)
disappoint adds negation3 (implicit)
(Disappoint is implicitly negative since it means ‘not to live up to expectations’.)

Logically, to never fail to do something means ‘to always do’ it. ‘Twitter never fails to disappoint’ therefore means ‘Twitter always disappoints.’

But the example which caught my eye was intended to mean the exact opposite. It reads like a conflation of ‘never fails to please’ or some appropriate positive verb, and ‘never disappoints’.

Notice how the reply at the top uses the logical meaning to rebut the positive but mistaken one under the image of the woman eating.

Not a unique case

Twitter never fails to disappoint is hardly a unique case of a phrase meaning the opposite of what the speaker intends. Another well-known and well-embedded example is the ‘It is impossible/difficult/hard to underestimate’ structure, where, logically, overestimate is meant, e.g. ‘It would be impossible to underestimate its [sc. Ulysses’] influence; the novel was never quite the same again.’ The logical meaning is ‘its influence cannot be overestimated’ i.e. exaggerated.

But there we only have two negatives rather than three: one explicit – impossible – and one implicit negative in overestimate, because to overestimate is to produce an incorrect estimate.

But let’s get back to never fail to do.

never + fail + to what?

In theory, in the sense of always doing it, you could never fail to do practically anything, for example, I never fail to eat Marmite at breakfast.
However, our old friend collocation kicks in strongly here. The string never + FAIL [sloped capitals mean ‘in all forms’] + to-infinitive very often goes with events and emotions that can be classified broadly as either positive (entertain, amuse, please, delight, inspire, etc.) or intense (impress, amaze, surprise, etc.), or a mixture of the two.

Even an apparently neutral verb such as make goes with positive verbs, e.g. MAKE + me/us/people, etc. + laugh/smile/giggle/chuckle (though whether that is, in any case, a feature of make, rather than of the entire phrase, is impossible to tell).

‘You’ve got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive…’

In fact, the top five collocations by frequency of never + FAIL + to-inf are (in my corpus, OEC Monitor Corpus April 2018) impress, amaze, make, deliver, disappoint.

If, as I have suggested above, the overall ‘profile’ of never fail to is positive, then speakers view never fail to disappoint as positive, despite its meaning the opposite. They take the whole as a ready-made, rather than analysing its meaning.
Moreover, it is possibly one of those phrases where the presence/absence of a negative makes little difference to the meaning. As Language Log pointed out, fail to miss behaves like that: the meaning is the same whether you say miss or fail to miss. Similarly, whether you say never DISAPPOINT or never FAIL to disappoint, the meaning is the same.

The corpus I consulted contains 226 examples of never FAIL to disappoint. In a random sample of 50, 45 showed the illogical meaning (= ‘never DISAPPOINT’)

We were rewarded with our choice of route as the New Zealand scenery never fails to disappoint. (= ‘never disappoints’)

If I’m going to drop $20 on a couple of made-to-order burgers, fries and a soda, there are a few Portillo’s close to here which are similarly priced but never fail to disappoint (= ‘never disappoint’) …The staff here is on point. Honestly, they can’t do enough for you.

A mere five (10%) exemplified the logical surface reading, meaning ‘always succeed in disappointing’.

For example, in this about the chronically inept Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS):

Lord Oakeshott, a leading LibDem peer, said: ‘RBS never fails to disappoint. Taxpayers poured £45 billion but it is a zombie bank, shrinking instead of lending.’

Similarly, this investigator of financial shenanigans:

My investigations often lead me into contact with British law enforcement and regulators and they never fail to disappoint me by their incompetence and lack of professionalism.

All in all, then, it would seem that the apparently negative ‘never FAIL to disappoint’ is well established as meaning the opposite of what it seems to mean, and as positive in intent.

We interpret it as positive, I submit, because a) we are now well used to a range of constructions that mean the opposite of what they are intended to mean and b) multiple negatives cannot be processed and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, lead to a positive or affirmative interpretation.

It could also be significant that the opposite – always FAIL to – does not collocate with the same verbs as never FAIL to. There is a solitary example of always FAIL to disappoint:

The beauty of Smashing Pumpkins is that every album is drastically different from each other. I’m eager for this release, Billy Corgan has always failed to disappoint me.

This general phenomenon of muddled negation is described by Language Log as ‘misnegation’ or ‘overnegation.’ Here is a link to a very long list of examples.

And here is an utterly mind-boggling example, courtesy of LL:

These contrasts don’t mean that Bush was without blemish: As Meacham notes, there were political misjudgments and calculated concessions to ambition on the long path to power. Nor does it mean that Trump doesn’t lack his own kind of strengths, not the least of which is his loudly declared indifference to elite opinion.

The fact is, we are able to interpret these car-crash negatives correctly and extract the meaning the speaker intended.

As humble proof of that, I stared at this oft-cited canonical example for ages before I realised what was wrong: ‘No head injury is too trivial to ignore.’ Like you, gentle reader, I understood what it meant without needing to analyse it, but it should, obviously – D’oh! – on reflection, be rephrased as ‘No matter how trivial your head injury seems, we will not ignore it’ or ‘No head injury is too trivial to be attended to.’ Again, it’s a case of that triple negation; no head injury1; is too trivial to X2 (= ‘is so trivial that it will not be Xed)’; be ignored3 (negative = ‘will not be attended to’).

Watch out for this kind of phrase. There are never too many of them not to fail to ignore.

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Read this! It’s of upmost importance! Utmost, upmost, uppermost and collocation

A three-minute-and-a-second-or-two read

Please read. This is of uppermost importance

The other day I was editing a chapter written by a French/Flemish academic who is a non-mother tongue speaker of English. Apart from a few lurking French-English false friends, it read extremely well, given its (predictably) dry academic style. Then I came across ‘Researching…NOUN bla, bla, bla, rather than simply focusing upon its rhetorical representations is, therefore, of uppermost importance’.

of upmost importance

Tiens! thought I. (Well, I didn’t; I’m just being more than usually pretentious. Reading lots of academic writing in the Humanities can make you like that, you know. Be warned!)

When English speakers diverge from the collocation ‘(of) utmost importance’ they usually replace utmost with upmost.  I hadn’t come across uppermost in that slot before.

But, I can easily see how, if none of the three words is part of your language, uppermost makes sense. It certainly seems to as regards meaning: ‘Highest in place, rank, or importance’ as the Online Oxford Dictionary defines it. And if you know the physical meaning (e.g. on the uppermost shelf), it is a mere hop, skip and jump to the metaphor.

It just so happens that uppermost does not generally associate or ‘collocate’ with importance.1

For example, in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English, Journals (June 2015, 1.67 billion words), a search for each of the three adjectives followed by importance retrieves this league table: utmost 1,765, upmost, 27, uppermost 4. Clearly, uppermost is a very distant ‘outrider’.2

The BYU Now Corpus (6 billion words) gives a similar result for the first two: utmost at 6,241 and upmost at 142, but uppermost is even rarer, with a single occurrence.

Could upmost be spreading?
I have long known about ‘upmost importance’; it’s something I must have noted long, long ago. Google Ngrams shows its steady rise since roughly 1930.

But I was a bit surprised to find that upmost limpets itself to other nouns as well.

Looking for example in the Oxford Monitor Corpus (February 2018, about 8 billion words), in addition to the well-ensconced upmost importance, I found upmost respect/integrity/professionalism/dignity:

I can only hope that today’s verdict goes some way to bringing closure to the victim’s family who have behaved with the upmost dignity throughout this very harrowing ordeal.

That is from the BBC News website, repeating, presumably, what someone said, so it might be a transcription glitch. Or it might not.

Those collocations do not appear in the Corpus of Academic English, Journals, which probably reflects the edited nature of the journals, compared to the content of the Monitor Corpus.

Is upmost wrong?
I’d say, rather, that it is, according to current collocational preferences, somewhat anomalous.

However, many people would consider it wrong tout court, that is, with no qualifications, and therefore an editor should probably change it, or, at the least raise the issue with the writer. I would.

Confusing upmost with utmost is hardly surprising given their sound and meaning similarity. It just so happens that the meaning, as the OED defines it, ‘That is of the greatest or highest degree; of the largest amount, number, etc.’ became, it seems, largely confined to utmost, rather than upmost or uppermost, from the early eighteenth century onwards.

However, the eggcorns database labels it as practically ‘mainstream’, while explaining its occurrence:  ‘[The constituent “ut”] is liable to reanalysis to something that more transparently expresses superlative meaning, such as up+most (‘uppermost’), which fits with the MORE IS UP-type metaphor. This may also involve anticipatory assimilation to the nasal in “most”.’

Collocation is such a tricky part of language; it is what invariably distinguishes the ‘native’ speaker from second-language speakers (like our professor at the start) no matter how proficient they might be.

It is also often unpredictable. Why do you make a mistake rather than do one?

For example, if you repay a debt, it seems kind of obvious and logical that the words ‘go together’, that repay is the right word to go with debt, given the meaning of each.

But if you honour a debt, or a cheque, that is, to my mind a rather different order of language combination (though, admittedly, one that is shared by French, Italian, and German, but not Spanish). And you cannot dishonour a cheque.

Moreover, like everything in language, collocational conventions change over time.

Which gives me a pretext for one of my favourite quotes, from that granddaddy of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure:

Le temps change toute chose : il n’y aucune raison pour que la langue échappe à cette loi universelle.’

Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.

1 What it does, of course, often collocate with is mind and related words (e.g. As Europe seeks to increase pressure on Moscow over its seizure of the Crimea region from Ukraine, making Moscow pay an economic price is uppermost in leaders’ minds).

In its original, literal, physical meaning, uppermost often goes with layers, reaches, tiers, floors, and the like: Ms. Langley’s ascent represents a slight evolution in how women have navigated moviedom’s uppermost ranks.

2 Outrider – not to be confused with the popular series Outlander – is a modish cliché I’ve discovered is popular in Academe. It means something like an exception, a solitary or unorthodox case.


Scot-free or scotch-free? Or Scott Free? Nothing to do with slavery or Scotland

(5-minute read)

Here’s a wheels-within-wheels eggcorn, or even an eggcorns-within-eggcorns eggcorn.

The standard form of the phrase is ‘to get off scot-free’:

Stone believes the two rig supervisors should be prosecuted, but he also thinks BP’s senior leaders have got away scot-free.

And here’s an example with the eggcorned version:

Every school child, and 99.999999999999% of the rest of us know the name of the ONLY country to commit nuclear genocide on innocent civilians and get away scotch-free.

And then there’s POTUS’s example:

He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get….

…his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free. He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.

@realDonaldTrump 3:24 and 3:29 p.m., 3 December 2018

Q: Is it scot free, scotfree or scot-free?
Dictionaries hyphenate it (Oxford Online, Collins, Cambridge, Merriam-Webster).

At the end of this post there are figures showing the relative frequency of this eggcorn. Meanwhile, let’s delve into scot-free’s backstory.

Q: Scot-free has got something to do with Scotland, Scots, Scottish, hasn’t it?
Nope, absolutely nothing, zilch, diddly squat, nada. It has nothing to do with the nationality, the language or the drink.

Q: It derives from the famous U.S. legal case involving the black American slave Dred Scott, doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t. That belief is a classic example of the stories that people invent about the origins of words and phrases that then become established “fact”. There are lots of such invented stories or urban myths about language, and they are technically called “folk etymology”.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that no black man, free or slave, could be a U.S. citizen.

Given the historic significance of this ruling, handed down before the Civil War, it is hardly surprising that its ripples were reflected in folklore and folk etymology.

Q: Oh, really!?! So, what is that scot bit, then?
It’s an archaic word for a form of tax. So being ‘scot-free’ meant not having to pay scot, that tax, and then, more generally, not having to pay anything for whatever it might be.

(More specifically, the OED defines scot as ‘A tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay’.)

Q: OK. But what has that got to do with the modern meaning of ‘without punishment or harm’?
As so often happens, people have extended the literal meaning to something more metaphorical and less specific (known by language geeks like me as ‘semantic broadening’).

As just mentioned, scot was a tax, and scot-free also once meant not liable for tax, and then later, more generally, ‘not liable to pay anything’. In parallel, it came to mean ‘escaping punishment, harm, or injury’. Here’s the earliest example in the OED entry (3rd edn., June 2011) of that extended meaning.

Is there eny grett differynge Bitwene theft and tythe gaderynge..? Uery litell,..Savynge that theves are corrected, And tythe gaderers go scott fre.

1528   Rede me & be nott Wrothe sig. H1 (a tract by reformers condemning the abuses of the Catholic Church)
[Is there any great difference between theft and tithe gathering? Very little,..except that thieves are punished, and tithe gatherers go scot-free.]

And here’s a much later example with the financial meaning still very much alive and kicking.

It was therefore thought very unjust by the Legislature, that all others be oblig’d to pay, and those Towns go Scot-free.

1734,   London Daily Post, 27 Nov.

Q: Is scotch-free a recent eggcorn?
Well, from the eggcorn database, which records it from as recently as 2007, you might be forgiven for supposing so.

However, the Corpus of Historical American has an example from 1960; and while the earliest OED citation is the 1528 one shown above, the second citation has scotchfree, suggesting that the association with Scotland was made very early on. In other words, the eggcorn goes back at least to the mid-16th century. Perhaps it should be spelled eggkorne in honour.

Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.

1567, J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 93

(Note that scaped for escaped, as in scapegoat.)

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Q: Is it true that scot-free was once shot-free?
Correct. That’s how Shakespeare put it into Falstaff’s mouth in Henry IV, Pt. 1 v. iii. 30.

Q: Now I’m totally confuseddotcom. What’s the link between scot-free and shot-free, then?
Well, here’s the next wheel or twist. That scot itself is probably a variant of shot, with the same meaning, influenced by Scandinavian skot. However, that shot doesn’t appear in the OED’s records in its own right until 1475:

  On cast down her schott and went her wey. Gossip, quod Elenore, what dyd she paye? Not but a peny.

  c1475   Songs & Carols (Percy Soc.) 94

Here shot means ‘The charge, reckoning, amount due or to be paid, esp. at a tavern or for entertainment; a or one’s share in such payment. Now only colloq. to stand shot’ (according to the unrevised OED entry).

Scott used it with that meaning:

Are you to stand shot to all this good liquor?

1821, Scott, Kenilworth II. vii. 184

Q: Does anyone still use scot-free in its original meaning?
You mean, ‘not having to pay (tax)’? The OED marks it as ‘rare’, and presents as its most recent citation one from 1921:

The common laborer does not know that that act [on taxation] was passed. He is scot free at 40 cents an hour.

Internal-revenue Hearings before Comm. on Finance (U.S. Senate, 67th Congr., 1st Sess.) 384

But a 1992 citation from Ngrams seems also to refer to this meaning:

Everything will be scotch free, as they say, and McFillen assures me there will be a good fiddle in the expenses if I work my loaf.

Celebrated Letters, John B. Keane.

Q: But to qualify as an eggcorn, doesn’t there have to be a plausible explanation meaningwise of why people use the phrase in the eggcorned version?
That’s right. And the eggcorn database records an ingenious (post)-rationalization of the modern eggcorn, which I’ll quote in full here:

I was watching Big Brother 8 when a ditzy girl said she got off “scotch free.” Well if you think of the powers of the product Scotchguard that protects fabrics from staining thus allowing crap to easily flow off and not stick. Same idea as the current usage of the phrase getting off “scot free,” no?

That’s a similar image to the one that leads to Teflon man, for someone to whom no ‘dirt’ ever sticks.

Q: How common is the eggcorn?
Not very, actually.

Trawling Ngrams, doesn’t help much, because, for example, what look like nineteenth-century references turn out to be references to the Scotch Free Church, generally known as the Scottish Free Church (the use of ‘Scotch’ reflecting an earlier use). The earliest genuine one I’ve tracked down on Ngrams is from a 1992 novel: “The two young men, Dindial and Mascal, had gotten away scotch free.” (But see the earlier discussion.)

The figures below are from the November 2017 release of the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Web-based English and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. As can be seen at a glance, the eggcorn is very much a minority tendency.

Totals 3,012/39 1,130/12 140/0 4,182/51
Form Corpus Combined:


scot-free 1,974 487 113 2,574
scot free 999 525 24 1,548
scotfree 39 18 3 60
scotch-free 5 2 0 7
scotch free 17 10 0 27
scotchfree 17 0 0 17