Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


lactose intolerant, lack toast (and) intolerant, lack toast and tolerant: eggcorns (4)

Continuing my intrepid expedition into the fabled Kingdom of Eggcornia (“Here bee dragoons”), in this blog I’ll look at one more from the first ten of the list I mentioned originally. (The full list is at the bottom of this blog.) It is lack toast intolerant, and variants.

I’ll use the notation that I used and explained in an earlier blog.

lack toast intolerant, lack toast and tolerant and even lack toast and tall or rent, lack toast and toddler ant, etc. (lactose intolerant)

9.1.1 (In eggcorn database?)  Y;
9.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2004;

9.1.3 Typology possible t-insertion, at least for lack toast intolerant; in other words, the reverse of final d/t deletion, the phenomenon that explains explains e.g. dog-eat-dog becoming doggy-dog

9.2 (GloWbE figs.) n/a;

9.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) n/a;

9.4.1 (History and explanation) I think this one is on the Barbary shores of the fabled land of Eggcornia. Or rather, it is more spoken about than spoken. Many of the Google hits for it are metalinguistic: people are slagging it off as a mistake.
However, it’s been around for quite a while: this site refers to its being mentioned in 1997, and Susie Dent mentioned it in her Language Report for 2006. And this Youtube link is an example, as is one of my images.
Being lactose intolerant has to do with milk products. Someone who had never heard the phrase before might assume there was a t missing, insert it, and come up with lack toast intolerant. But it doesn’t at first sight make a great deal of sense.

But then there is the “reshaping” lack toast and tolerant, which, actually makes more sense and might shed some light on lack toast intolerant. It makes more sense because, if I don’t know what the lactose in lactose intolerant is about, my thought processes might go something like this:

  • From context, it’s about food allergies;
  • Oh, yeah, some people are allergic to wheat products;
  • Toast’s got wheat in it, right?
  • So, what they’re saying is, they’re intolerant because they can’t eat toast;
  • Sure, I dig. Who wouldn’t be a bit grumpy if you can’t even eat toast?
  • And then, with the reformulation to lack toast and tolerant, the meaning is that the person so described, being wrongly supposed to be allergic to wheat, is now tolerant because they have not got toast, which contains it.

Far-fetched? Possibly. I’ll let you decide. I came up with this explanation, before discovering that someone else humorously suggested something along the same lines (see below).

The alternative, of course, and equally, or more likely, is that whoever uses the eggcorn understands exactly what the referent is, but has just never thought about analysing the individual parts of the phrase.

9.4.2 (Other observations) FWIW, Google searches using quotation marks produce these figures:

“lack toast intolerant” 39,600
“lack toast and tolerant” 8,240
“lack toast and intolerant” 327

In The Ants are My Friends (2007), Martin Toseland jokes about the last one: “If you wake up in a bad mood, don’t get breakfast soon enough and are generally a complete pain, you can be described as ‘lack toast and intolerant’;…”

  1. To be pacific (instead of to be specific)
  2. An escape goat (instead of a scapegoat)
  3. Damp squid (instead of damp squib)
  4. Nipped it in the butt (instead of nipped in the bud)
  5. On tender hooks (instead of on tenterhooks)
  6. Cold slaw (instead of coleslaw)
  7. A doggie-dog world (instead of dog-eat-dog world)
  8. Circus-sized (instead of circumcised)
  9. Lack toast and tolerant (instead of lactose intolerant)
  10. Got off scotch free (instead of got off scot-free)
  11. To all intensive purposes (instead of to all intents and purposes)
  12. Boo to a ghost (instead of boo to a goose)
  13. Card shark (instead of card sharp)
  14. Butt naked (instead of buck naked)
  15. Hunger pains (instead of hunger pangs)
  16. Tongue and cheek (instead of tongue-in-cheek)
  17. It’s a mute point (instead of moot point)
  18. Pass mustard (instead of pass muster)
  19. Just deserves (instead of just deserts)
  20. Foe par (instead of faux pas)
  21. Social leopard (instead of social leper)
  22. Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  23. Curled up in the feeble position (instead of curled up in the foetal position)
  24. Curve your enthusiasm (instead of curb your enthusiasm)
  25. Heimlich remover (instead of Heimlich manoeuvre)
  26. Ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
  27. Extract revenge (instead of exact revenge)
  28. Self -depreciating (instead of self-deprecating)
  29. As dust fell (instead of as dusk fell)
  30. Last stitch effort (instead of last ditch effort)







On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks? Eggcorns (3)


The chap on the left is attaching the cloth to a tenterhook, to keep the cloth nice and taut on its ‘tenter’ (frame).

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I’m on a role [;-)] with this eggcorn thang, so here’s a revamp of one I made earlier, to tied you over until the next in-death one I have time to pen.1

To be on tenterhooks: What does it mean?

You’ll probably have your own image. [You can add it mentally here…]

For me, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because you don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as you feared, be it exam results, a job application, a medical test:

Britain’s farmers have been on tenterhooks since a vet found lesions–possible signs of foot and mouth disease–in the mouths of two sheep at the farm on Tuesday.”

Where does it come from?

Why tenterhooks? Most people absorb the phrase as a whole (or Gestalt, if we want to be pretentious): they grasp the meaning without analysing its constituent parts. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenDerhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is? And if something is tender, it’s delicate and susceptible to harm or damage, and so, if I’m on tenderhooks–you get my drift when it comes to explaining the logic of this eggcorn.

Not to mention that, soundwise, it’s possibly another example of the t-flapping which/that accounts for several other eggcorns, such as trite and true, financial heartship and cuddlefish.

Well, it’s all to do with tenters—who are not hippy-dippy people who have anything to do with tents or camping. In fact, tenters are not people at all. (There is a word tenter meaning someone who lives in a tent, but that’s a different word.)

The kind of tenter we’re interested in is, according to the OED, “a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking”.

The OED also points out that tenters once stood in the open air in tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts. In other words, the original image is one of being very “tense”, in the sense of being stretched very tight, as can be clearly seen in the early quotation, from Cranmer, mentioned later on.

And in some antique panoramas of cities before or during industrialization the surrounding fields are filled with white waves of cloth suspended on tenters.

In the image here of Leeds in the 18th century (undated, but first quarter to first half, I guess, though I’m no costume expert) rows of tenters in some of the fields can just about be made out.

The origin of the word tenter, again according to the OED, is not certain, but may have to do with the Latin for stretching (tendĕre) or with the French for dye (teint).

And tenterhooks are?

As the OED puts it: “one of the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held; a hooked or right-angled nail or spike; dial. a metal hook upon which anything is hung”.

How old is the word?

Tenters is first recorded in its literal sense from the 1300s (“Whon þe Iewes hedden þus nayled Criston þe cros as men doþ cloþ on a tey[n]tur”, Modern English: “When the Jews had thus nailed Christ on the cross as men doth cloth on a tenter“), while the last OED citation of the literal meaning is from a dialect dictionary of 1889.

Note the meaning drift:

Tenter-hooks, strong iron hooks put in ceilings and..joists.., on which bacon and other such things are hung. Glossary of Words from Manley & Corringham, Lincs. (ed. 2), E. Peacock.

Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in the form tentourhokes in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV’s daughter and Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York. She apparently needed 200.

Another sartorial context (1579) is provided by the Office of the revels of Queen Elizabeth I. You could buy a lot of them very cheap (by today’s standards): “Tainter Hookes at viiid the c.” (i.e. at eight pence the 100).


How old is the metaphor?

Very. Tenters was used in several phrases such as to put or stretch on the tenters in the 16th century. The next two quotations suggest by their visual immediacy how much tenters must have been part of everyday life. From the author of that jewel of our language The Book of Common Prayer, and Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer (1551): “But the Papistes haue set Christes wordes vppon the tenters and stretched them owt so farre, that they make his wordes to signyfy as pleaseth them, not as he ment”, (not a sentiment calculated to endear him to Queen Mary).

And in this simile by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker (1602): “O Night, that…like a cloth of cloudes dost stretch thy limbes; Vpon the windy Tenters of the Ayre“.


Disraeli père, looking very intellectual and thoughtful.

Tenterhooks was used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond in various metaphors suggesting something causing suffering, and also the idea of stretching something beyond its proper bounds, as in this Isaac Disraeli (the Prime Minister’s dad) quote: “Honest men…sometimes strain truth on the tenter-hooks of fiction” (or, as we’d say nowadays, “are economical with the truth” or even use “alternative facts”).

However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tenterhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only as late as 1748 in Smollett, and in its canonical form not until 1812, in the diary of soldier and diplomat Sir Robert Thomas Wilson: “Until I reach the imperial headquarters I shall be on tenter-hooks“.

Byron used the spelling “tender” – or did he?

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Aren’t I just fabulous? You can dress me up in this ridiculous, semi-oriental drag that no Englishman (or half-Scot, which I am) would be seen dead in and I still look like a lord. That’s breeding for you.

The line from Don Juan runs as follows:

[It] keeps the atrocious reader in suspense; The surest way for ladies and for books To bait their tender or their tenter-hooks.

Does tender here go with hooks? Or is it used in the meaning of “offering”?

How frequent is the eggcorn version?

To be on tenderhooks is relatively well known among eggcornisti, and seems to me to be part of the “eggcorn canon”. But, actually, how frequent is it? I’ve looked at various sources, such as the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American, of Historical American, and Google books (US), which all suggest that it isn’t at all frequent, at least in written sources. For instance, in the GloWbE (the Corpus of Global Web-Based English) it occurs 3 times against 241 for the correct version. Similarly in Google US books (155 billion words) the figures are 57 to 8,238.

Dictionaries don’t accept the eggcorn, and judging by relative frequency are unlikely to for a long time. I don’t think I’ll be on tenterhooks waiting to see if they do.

In case you think I’m being more than usually silly, tie over, indeath research and to be on a role are all genuine eggcorns. I didn’t stumble across them; I asked myself if they would exist in the wild, googled them, and, sure enough, they do. Almost any idiomatic phrase you care to think of will probably have an eggcorn version. Try it for yourself.

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Eggcorns (2). Let’s nip this in the butt!


It’s a dog-meet-dog world…

In the previous blog on this topic, I attempted to differentiate eggcorns from other verbal “slips”, and suggested that they illustrate how people try to make sense of idioms they hear that are both unfamiliar and seemingly nonsensical.

I also suggested that the difference between eggcorns and the originals that inspired them could often be reduced to a single sound. In other words, I want to hone in [sic] on the fact that not only are eggcorns semantically motivated and “logical”; they also often make sense from a sound point of view. They are not, as nothing in language is, random in the sense of being arbitrary, and are susceptible of rational explanation.

For instance, not only does damp squid make sense meaningwise; it replaces the voiced plosive /d/ with another one, /b/, rather than, say, replacing it with squit. which ends with a voiceless plosive, but could equally convey the meaning of dampness and unpleasantness.

The section on “typology” in the list that follows, hopefully, illustrates ways in which such modifications are phonetically non-random.

Of course, eggcorns can be highly amusing if they generate a surreal image. But the amusement they provide should be disinterested and kind-hearted; it should not be of the rebarbative “I despise you when you use poor grammar” school.

I also suggested that the survey I talked about in the earlier blog could not seriously be considered “research”. Which raises the question: where is evidence for eggcorns to be found?

Language corpora of different kinds are the obvious answer. There is also the mother of all eggcorn collections here, the eggcorn database set up by asphyxianados years ago. (I made that one up, in case you’re wondering, but a google does get some hits.)

That said, eggcorns are largely oral phenomena, and therefore looking in written sources for them might be akin to looking for God in a brewery. Nevertheless, written collections of one kind or another do shed some light. What follows is a detaiedl analysis of the first four in the original list (there’ll be further blogs on others). Each one is analysed according to the following criteria:

1.1 In eggcorn database? Y/N

1.2 If Yes, year of first citation mentioned in that database?

1.3 Typology

1.2 Frequency of original in the vast database GloWbE1 vs the eggcorn version

1.3 If in Google Ngrams, earliest relevant example

1.4.1 History & explanation (if applicable)

1.4.2 Other observations

(Numbering starts with the number of the entry in the list, and then continues with the numbers of the four categories and subcategories mentioned above.

  1. to be pacific (to be specific)
    1.1-1.1.2 (Eggcorn database & Year) N;
    1.1.3 (Typology) initial consonant phoneme drop;
    1.2 (In GloWbE?) N;
    1.3 (Google) no Googles, other than metalinguistic
    1.4.2 This one puzzles me. The use of “pacifically” for “specifically” is well attested; so much so, in fact, that is practically a meme. I suspect that whoever put the list together found this somewhere and regurgitated it.

  1. escape goat (scapegoat)
    2.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
    2.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) undated;
    2.1.3 (Typology) initial vowel phoneme addition;
    2.2 (GloWbE figs.) 3,094/63 escape goat; escapegoat 5;

2.3. (Earliest Ngrams citation) As can be seen on this link, 1853, it seems. That entry is from a French-English dictionary. Earlier quotations seem to be not germane to this discussion.
2.4.1 (History & explanation) The “scape” in scapegoat is escape with its first vowel chopped off. In Google Ngrams, some of its occurrences are metalinguistic, i.e. in discussion of how it came to be.

As Ben Zimmer pointed out in the eggcorn database: Note by Ben Zimmer, Nov. 15, 2010: “As explained by Merrill Perlman in ‘Passing the Blame’ (CJR Language Corner, 11/15/10), the change of scapegoat to escape goat simply brings it into line with its etymological origins:

‘The concept of the “scapegoat” is in the Bible, in Leviticus, as part of the ritual of atonement. The word “scape-goat” itself, though, did not appear until 1530, according to The Oxford English Dictionary: “In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.” That first goat escaped death, though it was loaded with sin. Since “scape” was merely a spelling variation of “escape,” it was, literally, an “escape goat.” Maybe “escaped goat” would be more grammatically correct, but no matter.”’

It is also worth mentioning the further eggcorn scrapegoat.


  1. damp squid (damp squib)
    3.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
    3.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2005;
    3.1.3 (Typology) Final consonant phoneme swap (voiced plosives);
    3.2 (GloWbE figs.) 352/20;
    3.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) 1898 “By the time she returns to her ‘muttons’ all interest in the entertainment has evaporated, and the denouement fizzles out like a damp squid.” The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 68;

3.4.1 A squib is a type of firework, and a damp one doesn’t go off, and is therefore disappointing. The OED first records the idiom from as “recently” as 1846.
3.4.2 What can I say? This was the title my editor chose for my parvum opus. The idiom, in either form, seems to be far less known in the US than in the UK. In the earlier blog, I mentioned Jeanette Winterson’s remark that she grew up believing it was damp squid. Here it is again, for interest:

I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?


4. nipped it in the butt (nipped in the bud)
4.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
4.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2002;
4.1.3 (Typology) t/d-deletion2;
4.2 (GloWbE figs.) 462/2;
4.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) n/a;

4.4.1 The original, nip in the bud, is a horticultural metaphor. First recorded in its current form in 1607, but known in a variant from 1590: F. Beaumont Woman Hater iii. i. sig. D4v   Yet I can frowne and nip a passion Euen in the bud.

4.4.2 I couldn’t track this down in Ngrams, which is perhaps not surprising, given its mere two occurrences in GloWbE. If you google “nip in the butt” millions of ostensible hits show up. I scanned the first two screens of hits, and all, bar one, were discussions of the misuse of one for t’other, or knowing puns.

The single exception, from a blogger who had grown up believing “in the butt” to be the correct version, shows how adept people are at rationalizing their own usage: “I thought the saying was more of a scare tactic. Basically if you don’t cut out the behavior that you are doing you will get nipped (bit, pinched, etc) in the butt. This was pretty powerful for me growing up.”

The confusion with butt is not only “logical”, as illustrated by the blogger’s comment above; it is also motivated by conflicting meanings of nip. For the in the butt version, people assign the meaning “bite, peck” etc. to the verb, as in the cartoon below.  However, the idiom derives from a different, and nowadays rarer meaning, which the OED classifies as sense 13 a: “Originally: to check or destroy the growth of (a plant), as by the physical removal of a bud or the like, or through the action of cold or frost. Later: to arrest or prevent the growth or development of (anything).”

Additionally, I would have thought that the existence of other frequent idioms with butt (pain in the butt, kick in the butt, etc.) must play a part.

1 GloWbE stands for “The Global Corpus of Web-based English, a corpus containing over 1.9 billion words of text from 20 countries where English is used.

2 t/d-deletion, discussed here, explains why e.g. skimmed milk might become skim milk, and why some estate agents wax lyrical if a house for sale “boasts” stain glass windows. Try saying end game very quickly. Now, is there a /d/ there? Be honest.


Eggcorns. Grit to my mill! (1)

On 8 December 2017, some British newspapers picked up a story about “eggcorns”. The Independent headed it “The 30 most misused phrases in the English language”.

According to the Indy, a British opticians and hearing care company “surveyed 2,000 British adults and found that 35 per cent of them used eggcorns without even realising they were saying something incorrectly”.

As its introduction, the article (drawn, I suspect from experience, more or less verbatim from the company’s press release) stated, “New research has revealed the 30 most commonly misused phrases in the UK. Known as eggcorns, the bizarre phrases often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings.” (The full list is at the end of this blog.)

Clearly, this is not serious “research”. For starters, what particular “English language” was being sampled? For example, were people recorded over a period of days, weeks, or months, and were the recordings then transcribed and analysed? Somehow, I think not. And a score of other questions could be asked.

Let’s leave methodology aside, though, and hone in [sic] on the purported “definition” of eggcorns: “bizarre phrases [that] often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings”.

No, sirree. eggcorns are quite the opposite of “nonsensical”: they are the hearers’ attempt to make sense of phrases that strike them as nonsensical by making them meaningful – at least for those hearers.

I’ve pontificated previously about eggcorns in general here, and about specific ones here and here. But, at the risk of repetition, here’s the OED definition again:

An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.”

Incidentally, I’d highlight “reinterpretation” here, rather then “mishearing”: the sound stream reaching my ear may be the real McCoy, but my brain has to interpret it somehow by turning an “unknown unknown” into a sort of “known unknown”, if you catch my drift, and the result is an eggcorn.

The term was coined in 2003 by the eminent linguist Professor Geoff Pullum1, and derives from a “reinterpretation” of the “word” acorn2.

Oh, so it’s just a fancypants, linguists’ term for malapropism, right?

No. That’s why it was needed.

Malapropism involves “The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect.” President Bush was famous for them, e.g. “We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers.”—Houston, Sept. 6, 2000.

OK. So, it’s like folk etymology, then?

(You mean “folk etymology” in the meaning of “the transformation of one word or lexeme into another which then becomes institutionalized”, such as crayfish from Middle English, crevice, crevisse, with the –ice, –isse element reinterpreted as “fish”; or chaise lounge [recognised in some dictionaries] from chaise longue?)

No, because, in theory at any rate, eggcorns are the productions of one speaker, rather than of a speech community.

So, what defines an eggcorn?

Well, apart from being the production of one speaker – and such are going to be very hard to find written evidence for, aren’t they? – they often tend to differ from the original by a single sound, occasionally two. An example of that is damp squid for damp squib3. Alternatively, actually, they sound exactly the same as the original, but their existence only emerges when someone writes them down, as in ex-patriot for expatriate.

What’s more, many idioms that are eggcornized contain a word that rarely, or even never, occurs outside the idiom. What exactly is “grist“, anyway, and what is it doing in my mill? And what is a “squib“?

What evidence is there for the claim made?

I believe that any “research” mentioned in the article would be along these lines: the market research company surveying people created a list of thirty phrases with their original and eggcorn versions, and then asked their sample to say which was correct. If that is the case (and I’ll try to find out), the statement “35% of them used eggcorns” needs to be deconstructed. It could, after all, merely mean that 35 per cent of the sample got 1 phrase wrong, out of 30. More probably, however, there will have been a range: i.e. some answered 1, some 2, some 3, etc. (though none will have answered 30).

It would be interesting to know which were the most commonly misused, but that is too much to hope for.

More importantly, though, if the company created the list, it must have drawn on existing sources. That, as a bit of an eggcorn groupie and having myself done PR campaigns based on eggcorns, is what I suspect from the list, and from the dubious status of at least a couple of entries on it (“to be pacific”? “circus-sized”?)

For the moment, I’m going to analyse and comment on the first 12  in the list. But that’s material for another blog. Otherwise, this one will be too long.

  1. To be pacific (instead of to be specific)
  2. An escape goat (instead of a scapegoat)
  3. Damp squid (instead of damp squib)
  4. Nipped it in the butt (instead of nipped in the bud)
  5. On tender hooks (instead of on tenterhooks)
  6. Cold slaw (instead of coleslaw)
  7. A doggie-dog world (instead of dog-eat-dog world)
  8. Circus-sized (instead of circumcised)
  9. Lack toast and tolerant (instead of lactose intolerant)
  10. Got off scotch free (instead of got off scot-free)
  11. To all intensive purposes (instead of to all intents and purposes)
  12. Boo to a ghost (instead of boo to a goose)
  13. Card shark (instead of card sharp)
  14. Butt naked (instead of buck naked)
  15. Hunger pains (instead of hunger pangs)
  16. Tongue and cheek (instead of tongue-in-cheek)
  17. It’s a mute point (instead of moot point)
  18. Pass mustard (instead of pass muster)
  19. Just deserves (instead of just deserts)
  20. Foe par (instead of faux pas)
  21. Social leopard (instead of social leper)
  22. Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  23. Curled up in the feeble position (instead of curled up in the foetal position)
  24. Curve your enthusiasm (instead of curb your enthusiasm)
  25. Heimlich remover (instead of Heimlich manoeuvre)
  26. Ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
  27. Extract revenge (instead of exact revenge)
  28. Self -depreciating (instead of self-deprecating)
  29. As dust fell (instead of as dusk fell)
  30. Last stitch effort (instead of last ditch effort)

1 The link to the Language Log post discussing the issue is here.

2 As the OED shows, the person who pronounced acorn as “eggcorn” and thus inspired the linguistic term was not alone, and not the first.

1844   S. G. McMahan Let. 16 June in A. L. Hurtado John Sutter (2006) 130   I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn [acorn] bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.

1983   Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa24 Apr. 23 (caption)    Paper sacks held a variety of ‘recyclable’ goods including ladies’ shoes, pine cones, walnuts, used toys and, according to their sign, eggcorns (acorns).

If you say the word acorn in a sort of Texan drawl, you might hear how it could become eggcorn. Or, as Mark Liebermann puts it: “Note, by the way, that the author of this mis-hearing may be a speaker of the dialect in which ‘beg’ has the same vowel as the first syllable of ‘bagel’. For these folks, ‘egg corn’ and ‘acorn’ are really homonyms, if the first is not spoken so as to artificially separate the words.”

3 Jeanette Winterson is quoted as follows. Her explanation shows how very much eggcorns do make sense: “I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”


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Discernible or discernable? Is discernable even a word? (2)

In the previous blog on this topic, I presented some information about the history of these two forms of the ‘same word’, which have exactly the same meanings.

Once a presumed synonym comes into existence, though, it seems that some people will search heaven and earth to find a justification for its existence. Such is the case with discernable. If you google it, you might be directed to Wikidiff, which assures you that there is a meaning distinction between the two forms. You could have fooled me, but here, for what it’s worth, is what that august fount of knowledge claims:

‘The difference between discernible and discernable is that discernible is possible to discern while discernable is detectable or derivable by use of the senses or the intellect.’

Whoever thought that up had not quite worked out that nonsense on stilts is still nonsense, even if stamped with the faux seal of the internet/Wiki/wotevah. If something is ‘possible to discern’ it can ‘be discerned’, which means that it is ‘detectable by use of the senses or the intellect.’ I’m not sure where the ‘derivable’ comes in, but this cyberjobsworth was clearly not averse to circularity.

According to the OED, whose judgement I prefer to that of Wikidiff, and according to common sense, whose virtues may be even greater than those of that august cultural monument, there is simply NO DIFFERENCE (at least in meaning) between the two words. Each has five senses, which are exactly paralleled in the other, including the fifth and obsolete ‘capable of discerning’ (an ability the writer of Wikidiff clearly lacked):

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.

1650   Man in Moon No. 37. 295   I hope this will be a sufficient caution for all discernable, or rationall men.

The difference is a simple orthographical one, ‘derivable’ or ‘possible to discern’ by looking at data.  Which is more frequent? Discernible or discernable. You know the answer yourself, vermute ich, but here is the science:

Figures and ratios for discernable/ible in several corpora:

Oxford English Corpus:

Feb 2014 – General – 4430/1472; total = 5,902; Ratio 75:25%
Monitor corpus Aug. 2017 – 9750/1861; total = 11,611; Ratio 83.97:16.03%
Academic journals, June 2015 –  6,303/1,858; total = 8,161; Ratio 77.23:22.77%

BYU corpora:

Corpus of Historical American (CoHA)– 1132/54; total = 1,186; Ratio 95.4:4.6%
NOW Corpus (News) – 5602/932; total = 6,534; Ratio 85.7:14.3%
Corpus of Contemporary American (CoCA)– 1096/190; total = 1,286; Ratio 85.2:14.8%

And here are the figures from the Global Corpus of Web-based English.

discernible 2,608 609 164 596 170 244 121 80 624
discernable 721 183 46 175 40 65 42 21 149
RATIO [%] 78.8/21.2 76.9/23.1 78.1/21.9 77.3/22.7 81.0/19.0 79/21 74.2/25.8 79.2/20.8 80.1/19.9

As you will have noticed, for most corpora, the proportion of discernible seems to hover betwen the 75% and 80% mark.

The exceptions are those datasets that exceed the 80% mark, of which there are four: OEC Monitor, CoHA, NOW and CoCA. To what extent the difference is signficant, not being a statistician, I am afraid I cannot say. The very high 95.4% of the CoHA data, though, is presumably due to writers historically being more careful about putting down what they thought of as the correct form.

Good ole’ Ngrams shows a slight drop in discernable at the beginning of the 19th century, and then an upward trend towards 2000, while discernible shows an earlier peak, and then decline.

Finally, omniscient Google asks ‘Did you mean discernible?’ if you key in the –able form.

So, yes, according to what the sources tell us, discernable is used and legitimate, but still a minority taste (a bit like the British LibDems, really). The only usage note I can find on it is in Pam Peters’ Cambridge guide, where she suggests that writers use the -able form either ‘in deference to the older tradition, or by using the regular English wordforming principle for English verbs’.

In that regard, the OED lists about 3,700 –able adjectives compared with a mere 600 for –ible.

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Discernible or discernable? Is discernable even a word? (1)

‘Discernable’, I hear you say. ‘There’s no such word!’

While editing the other day I came across this spelling, and it had me scratching my head. ‘A mistake, surely?’ said I to myself, a tad too smugly, as it turned out.

I thought I’d better check all the same.

I’m glad I did, for thereby hangs a tale of imported words, historical swapping, and current variation or uncertainty.

Is it correct, you might ask? Well, yes and no. (It depends what you consult.)

Is it frequent? (For those in a hurry [FTIAH], far less so than discernible.)

And what does ‘the dictionary’ say? ([FTIAH], It depends which one.)

Which came first? And where from? (Read on.)

If I write discernable, am I wrong? (Read on.)


‘The dictionary’ says:

  1. The Online Oxford Dictionary gives it as an alternative form under the headword discernible.
  2. Collins proclaims itrare’ and ‘another word for discernible’.
  3. Google asks ‘did you mean discernible?’
  4. Merriam-Webster online makes it a subentry under discern, ‘discernible or less commonly discernable’.
  5. M-W Unabridged gives it as an alternative under discernible with no comment on relative frequency.
  6. In its etymology rubric for discernible, the OED says ‘compare earlier discernable’, which has its own (Dec. 2013) entry.

So, if you go by ‘the dictionary’, it exists and is valid.

However, the OED entry for discernable has a cautionary note: ‘discernible is now the more common word; some later examples of discernable may show typographical errors for it.’ (My underlining.)

And the ‘After Deadline’ column’s spelling check in the NYT – admittedly back in 2010 – had this to say:

‘Here’s a new nominee for the title of most-frequently-misspelled word (by percentage of uses): “discernible.”

Like “legible” and “divisible,” it ends in “-ible” rather than “-able” (the spelling generally depends on how the original Latin verb was conjugated). In the past year we used “discernible” in articles 92 times and “discernable” 15 times, for an error rate of about 14 percent.

Granted, a few dictionaries charitably list “discernable” as an alternate spelling, but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a 16th-to-18th-century variant. We should stick to “discernible.”’

By Philip B. Corbett January 19, 2010 11:05 Am


Where do discernible/discernable come from?

There’s a bit of a story to unravel here. The M-W unabridged puts it in a nutshell:


discernible alteration (influenced by Late Latin discernibilis, from Latin discernere + –ibilis -ible) of discernable; discernable from Middle French, from discerner + -able

In other words, it suggests that what most people would today take to be the standard form is an alteration of the form in –able.

Does the OED agree?

Not exactly, but it does provide some interesting historical information.

Stepping back a bit from either derivative, let’s take the verb discern. The OED gives it a dual parentage from French AND Latin. (Words from ‘French and/or Latin’ constitute the fourth-largest group of loanwords in English, after those from [you’ll have guessed already] Latin only, French only, and Greek, and ahead of German]. It is first recorded from before 1325 (i.e. the exact date is not known).


Given its existence in English, discern, like so very many other verbs, was then capable of having the suffix –able added – or, as the OED puts it: ‘formed within English by derivation’ – when the need to express the idea of ‘able to be discerned’ arose. Which it did, but not before 1548, it seems, and then in a rather sad cause.

1548   W. Patten The Expedicion into Scotlande of…Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset sig.

That woorthy gentleman and valiaunt Captain all piteefully disfigured and mangled amoong them lay: and but by his bearde nothing discernable.

That extract is from the account of the disastrous (for the Scots) battle between the English and Scots armies at Pinkie Cleugh (near Musselburgh, which is not far from Edinburgh), on 10 September, 1547. Possibly as many as 6,000 Scots were killed out of an army of 22,000 to 23,000.

In that extract, the meaning is not the main modern one of ‘perceptible’ but rather that of ‘recognizable’, in this case only by the subject’s beard. (How you recognize a man by his beard alone could be a skill we moderns have lost. Hipsters take note.)

Lord Protector Somerset by Holbein (Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, under whose auspices the attack on Scotland took place.) You’d have to be Herculeanly butch to get away with that look nowadays.

That meaning of ‘perceptible (to the mind)’ first surfaced thirteen years later, in a translation of Calvin (the theologian)’s work:

1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Inst. Christian Relig. i. xvii. f. 62   The schoole of certayn and plainly discernable trueth [L. certae conspicuaeque veritatis schola].

It is worth noting, firstly, that the OED gives twenty-first century citations for four out of the five meanings it assigns to discernable (the fifth being, in any case, obsolete).

Second, the OED also notes ‘Compare Middle French, French discernable visible, (in later use also) that can be perceived by the mind or intellect (16th cent.)…’ which leaves it tantalizingly unclear what influence the OUP lexicographers think French had on the word. (Remember what M-W Unabridged says, quoted earlier.)


is a direct borrowing from the Late Latin discernibilis, from the Latin verb discernere mentioned earlier, ‘to separate, to distinguish, to settle, decide’ (from which comes discrete, meaning ‘separate’ and not ‘tactful’, which is spelled discreet). I wonder if its replacing the –able form is an example of the philological Latinizing trend that e.g. added the b to debt.

It currently has all the same meanings as discernable, and one extra, historically (= capable of discerning), with which it first appeared in 1603 in a work by the Elizabethan/Jacobean poet Samuel Daniel:

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.



The first OED citation for one of its current meanings (‘That can be discerned or perceived by the mind or intellect.’) is:

1616   S. S. Honest Lawyer i. sig. B

I am composd most of the nimbler elements: But little water in me, farre lesse earth, some aire..but their mixture Is scarce discernible, th’are so dispers’d. For my predominant qualitie is all fire.

A contemporary OED example with the same meaning is: 2003   N.Y. Mag. 3 Nov. 90/3   Songs that stop and start for no discernible reason.

Finally, in the meaning of ‘visible’ we have the first appearance in 1678:

W. Thomas Serm. preached before Lords 36

Elijah’s little Cloud scarce discernible at first aspect, but being dilated, blackens the Heavens.

And more recent quotations from George Eliot and Ian McEwan:

1866   ‘G. Eliot’ Felix Holt I. ii. 67   There was the slightest possible quiver discernible across Jermyn’s face.

2001   I. McEwan Atonement 160   There was nothing, nothing but the tumbling dark mass of the woods just discernible against the greyish-blue of the western sky.

Tbc in another blog, with information on relative frequencies.

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When is a fair not a fair but a fête? Mainly in Ambridge.

(For the benefit of non-UK readers, Ambridge is a fictitious village, not the Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It is the setting for The Archers, the world’s longest-running soap, and a radio drama series that has been running since the year of my birth [don’t ask!] The people mentioned in this blog are characters in it.)

Recently, lexically inquisitive Lexi asked why the annual Ambridge extravaganza was billed as a fête not a fair. Her question revealed, as a tweetalonger put it, ‘Roy’s etymological deficit’. So, to help Roy’s courtship of this formidable woman (she holds an M.A. from Plovdiv, and is fruit-picking to help finance her doctorate at Sofia university), here’s a crib sheet. (Don’t ask what crib sheet has to do with Baby Jesus’s cradle, pretty please, Lexi!)

(This is also the kind of thing that Lynda might like to mug up on – surreptitiously, of course.)

Let’s start with fair, the older of the two words.

What does it mean, where does it come from, and how long has it been used in English?

What it means

Well, like so many English words it is affected by ‘polysemy’ That’s not a form of potato blight. It’s a sort of Lynda word for ‘many meanings.’ It affects all the most common words in English – e.g., ‘common’ doesn’t just mean ‘frequent’ it also means Tracy Horrobin, Matt, et al. (For teacher’s pets, here’s the pronunciation).

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comprehensively defines the original and core meaning of fair as: ‘A periodical gathering for the buying and selling of goods, at a place and time set out by charter, statute, or ancient custom, and often incorporating sideshows, competitions, and other entertainments.’

The first citation shown is from around 1300, and the next is from Piers Plowman: ‘Ich wente to þe Feire With mony maner marchaundise.’ [I went to the fair with many kinds of merchandise; note that spelling Feire].

The ‘Scarborough Fair’ of the famous ballad would have been of this kind, as would London’s huge and long-running Bartholomew Fair – around which Jonson based his homonymous play.

  1. Now, it wasn’t just the Tom Archers of this world who went to fairs to sell their (putrid) wares: just as in Ambridge, the less obsessive went for the gossip and the entertainment provided by the sideshows – in those halcyon days before ferret racing was ever dreamt of and fruit-picking was a purely domestic affair.

Out of those fripperies grew the sense of ‘funfair’. As the OED puts it: ‘Chiefly Brit. A gathering for entertainment at which rides, sideshows, and other amusements are set up, typically (but not always) on a temporary or periodical basis; the place at which such rides and amusements are set up.’

The OED says it’s often hard to separate that meaning from the first one, but their first example clearly refers to what we (and the recently totally silenced Henry – what ever happened to him? Has Rob eaten him?) understand by a fair:

1763   London Chron. 8 Jan. 1/3   ‘On Saturday the River Thames was frozen over so hard at Isleworth, that a fair was kept on it all day… There was a round-about for children to ride in, and all sorts of toys sold.

And then there’s Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow (1921): ‘Crome’s yearly Charity Fair had grown into a noisy thing of merry-go-rounds, cocoanut shies, and miscellaneous side shows—a real genuine fair on the grand scale.’

3.  Related to meaning 1 is the sort of trade fair that could really be a step change for the village if Ambridge had its own one: ‘an exhibition, esp. one designed to publicize a particular product or the products of one industry, country, etc. Frequently with modifying word.’ The London Book Fair or the Frankfurt Book Fair are examples. Perhaps Tom Archer should think about setting up a fermented foods trade fair: KimchAm 2017 (Kimchi + Ambridge) has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I’m sure readers can supply something rather better.

4 Then, briefly, there’s the meaning sometimes Merrye-Englanded as fayre, such as a church fair, ‘an event at which homemade or second-hand goods are sold to raise money for charity, often incorporating competitions, displays, sideshows, etc.’

Now, just to confuse Lexi, the OED equates that  last meaning to fête. And the picture here shows a church event called ‘fair’. But the great and the good of Ambridge decided to call it a fête. Why? Perhaps it sounds jollier than ‘fair’ and avoids the vulgar connotations of commercial funfairs. Moreover, if you google village fete it gets many fewer hits than village fair, so Ambridge is not following majority language use. But then if you use quotation marks in your search, ‘village fete’ is the winner. Other than that, who knows? I think it would be best to ask the organizers.

Sorry, Lexi. English is a bit like that.

As Dickens put it, in the mouth of one of his characters: ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.’ (By ‘Strangers’ he meant ‘foreigners’.)

Where did the word come from?
Like tens of thousands of English words, from French feire (compare the 1390 quotation above.) Which in turn comes from late Latin feria, the singular of feriae, ‘holy days’ on which such fairs were often held. The Latin word has descendants in other Romance languages too: una feria in Spanish means ‘fair’ as in 2 and 3 above; un día feriado in Latin American Spanish is a public holiday; the Portuguese words for Monday-Friday all contain the word feira, e.g. Segunda-feira (Monday), literally ‘second fair’.


Is much more recent. In the unrevised OED entry, where it is defined as ‘A festival, an entertainment on a large scale’, it first appears in a quotation of 1754 from Horace Walpole’s letters i.e. ‘The great fête at St. Cloud’ and later in Thackeray’s 1848 Pendennis ‘The guests at my Lord So-and-so’s fête’.

The ‘village fête’ meaning goes back only to 1893, defined as ‘A bazaar-like function designed to raise money for some charitable purpose.’ The year after we find arch-aesthete Walter Pater offering ‘Sincere congratulations on the success of the Fête.’ Which makes one wonder, who will be writing to congratulate Ambridge?

Like fair, fête too comes from Latin via French: Old French feste (noun), from Latin festa, neuter plural of festus ‘joyous’. Spanish has the ‘same’ word as fiesta.

So, Lexi, there you have it. Not exactly in a nutshell, though. What does in a nutshell mean, you ask. You use it to tell people that you are about to say something in very few words, or briefly, usually when summing up an explanation or reason you have just given. Think of a hazelnut and its shell, and you’ll see you can’t fit many words in there. How would you say that in Bulgarian?

PS: It’s ok to write fete without its little hat, or circumflex accent, if you like, but I’m sure in Ambridge they would insist on it.