Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


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Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians.

I wonder what kind of “crescendo”. Of passion? Desire? Lust? Deceit?

5-second read

Some musicians and pedants hate the use of crescendo to mean an event, as in “to reach a crescendo”, rather than a process. Don’t worry. Use it that way if you want to. Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a journalistic cliché.


Now for the 7.5 minute read.

Can something reach a crescendo?

Not for language “purists. This usage gets right up their nose. Normal folk will probably just get on with life and use the phrase as and when required – which, if you are not a journalist, newscaster, reporter or wannabe writer, is unlikely to be very often.

Grrrr!

On Twitter recently a tweep was incensed enough by the journalistic (mis)use of the idiom to tweet this collective rebuke to Beeb hacks:  “Yet again, BBC reporters, you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is a process leading to a climax, or peak or whatever.”

That tweet concisely puts the argument deployed by purists. Repeat after me (they say): ‘“crescendo” does not mean “climax, culmination” and the like.’

A definition or two

Oh, but I’m sorry to have to break the news that it does. Where do we look if we want to know what a word “means”. Why, “the” dictionary, of course. Well, on this point dictionaries are in harmony, not to say unison (Geddit?!?!). Here’s the Collins dictionary’s first definition:

  1. music a gradual increase in loudness or the musical direction or symbol indicating this. Abbreviation: cresc. Symbol: (written over the music affected) ≺ (The image is my addition, btw)

(I added the illusration, btw; it is not in the dictionary.)

But that is followed by a further two:

  1. a gradual increase in loudness or intensity

the rising crescendo of a song

  1. a peak of noise or intensity

the cheers reached a crescendo

That last meaning shows the word association – reach – that is the major bête noire in this piece. “If a crescendo is a process”, say the naysayers, “how can it be reached?” It is true that you can reach a final state – maturity, for example, but not a process, such as “growing up”.

Crescendo goes with a few other verbs (e.g. become/hit/build to/rise to) but reach is by far the most frequent to imply an end state or an event. It is also worth noting that build to and rise to suggest process rather than state.

Just to be clear what we’re talking about, here are three examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American, from the academic, magazine, and fiction components:

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005, when Live8, the biggest rock concert in history, was held with the aim of influencing the G8 meeting in nearby Gleneagles.

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664, when the English took possession of New Amsterdam (population ten thousand) and the city and colony were renamed New York.

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Crescendos be like…

Adjectives that modify crescendo include, according to the Oxford English Corpus, operatic, Rossini, orchestral, slow-building, gradual, deafening, crashing, thundering, almighty, swelling, EUPHORIC, FRENZIEDROUSING, THRILLING.

Now, you might think that the adjectives/participles to do with hearing/sounds, or emotion (underlined and capitalized respectively), point to the word being used in its strictly musical sense. However, many do not.

For example, of the 14 examples of deafening crescendo, only two are strictly musical, and even one of those is from a football report:

…the orchestra reaching its deafening crescendo before the long silence known as off-season begins.

The other examples include e.g. Her entire being ached with unimaginable pain. She could barely move, the pain rising in a deafening crescendo as she struggled to sit up.

And, similarly, when it comes to crescendos of something, while many are musical or aural, there are also several non-musical ones (in descending order of statistical significance): a crescendo of boos, guitars, noise, applause, drums, strings, sound, voices, EXCITEMENT, EMOTION, CRITICISM, violence, PROTEST, music, color, activity, attack: e.g.:

Instead, there is a rising crescendo of voices wondering what C4 [British TV Channel Four] is for, and why, precisely, it deserves any kind of public subsidy.

Due to the short growing season, spring and summer flowers bloom together in a crescendo of color in July and August.

The title track of the new album is a highlight as ‘Shake/ Shiver Moan’ slowly builds itself up into an epic crescendo of flailing guitars and pounding drums and is an impressive indicator of where they now find themselves.

This very short, one-bar crescendo only reaches mezzo forte.

Who talks about crescendos?

The Oxford English Corpus shows you the domain of discourse of a word or phrase. Of the 2,857 examples of crescendo as a noun (singular, or plural crescendos), 1,040 are in the “arts” domain, 657 in “news”, “unclassified” accounts for 257, blogs  for 233, “life and leisure” 164, sport 92, “society” 80, fiction 60.

So, what does that tell us? Hey presto! 1,040 examples, or 36 per cent-ish, are in the arts domain, so it must be musical.

Well, not really. If you look more closely, a little over 600 are in the subdomains of “popular” and “classical music”. But that’s still fewer citations than for “news.” In addition, domains such as “life and leisure”, sport, and “society” are almost entirely journalistic writing, e.g.

…Barrett brilliantly builds a nerve-stretching crescendo of suspense and dread that culminates in the 1998 car bombingNZ Listener, referring to a film.

In short, though the first person cited by the OED as using crescendo in its “climax” meaning is Scott Fitzgerald (The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. Great Gatsby, iii 68), its forte is in journalism.

A musicianly rant

A Google search for “reach a crescendo” will quickly lead you to blogs and pronouncements, including one from the New York Times – which has been doing the rounds since 2013 — titled “A crescendo of errors”. The author is a violist (no, not a typo for “violinist”, but someone who plays the viola), and so knows a thing or three about music. H e expostulates “But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo.

A crescendo is the process, in music, of getting louder.”

He also notes that “crescendos don’t have to end loudly: you can make a crescendo from extremely soft to moderately soft, or from moderately soft to moderately loud.”

The Macdonald Stradivarius viola. At auction, offers of over $45 million were invited, but not achieved. It once belonged to the Amadeus Quartet’s violist.

He also says “And you will never convince any of those musicians that a word that for centuries has had one and only one precise meaning will, through repeated flagrant misuse, come to mean something else.”

He’s a musician, so, surely, his opinion must count for something. Or must it? Just as you wouldn’t ask a tone-deaf linguist to play Hindemith’s Viola Concerto, so a musician’s judgement on linguistic matters might be fatally flawed.  I respectfully submit that it is, on several different counts.


In no particular order…

  1. Just how “precise” is “the one and only one precise meaning”? If a crescendo can go from any volume to any other volume, in other words, if its end points are fluid, isn’t it a somewhat hazy concept? The only constant is that musicians play louder. In addition, it can be very short, as in the example higher up.
  2. To say that crescendo can only mean what it means to musicians is an example of the “etymological fallacy”, which, in a nutshell, is the idea that a word’s origin conveys its true meaning.

Here, though, we have the etymological fallacy with knobs on or a dose of musical snobbery thrown in. Or, to put it yet another way, the fallacy of the appeal to authority.

  1. I’ll give you one word: polysemy. A word or phrase can allowably have more than one meaning. In fact, most of the words we use most often have several. Thinking musically, we can talk about the different movements of a concerto or symphony. Does that mean we can’t apply movement elsewhere? Of course it doesn’t. (Note that my reasoning here is potentially Jesuitical: the word movement already existed in English before it acquired its musical meaning. But, no matter.)
  2. Neither the gender-fluid non-binary person (formerly known as “man”) on the Clapham omnibus, nor John nor Mary Doe, nor everyday usage cares what the technical meaning of a word is in its original field of discourse. Think “acid test” (originally a test using nitric acid as a test for gold). Think of the ubiquitous “DNA” in business speak. Think of “quantum leap” for “major [allegedly] advance”. Think of your own examples, as I’m sure you will.
  3. The phrase is useful.

Actually, perhaps fatally so for journalists, as we have already seen. On the one hand, it can be seen as one of those journalistic clichéd tropes which/that attempt to be dynamic and attention-getting. On the other, in certain cases, it is hard to think of a phrase that could replace it.

Taking the examples cited earlier on…

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005…

“Culminated in”? “reached” Had its crowning moment in”? “came to a climax in”?

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664,…

“Came to a head”?

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Here, I find it hard to see what could replace it: “achieving maximum volume”? “climaxing”?

It has also been suggested that the popularity of “reach a crescendo” might owe something to euphemism:  “to reach a climax” almost inevitably invokes the sexual meaning of climax (first brought into current usage by women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes starting in 1918).

  1. Words change meaning over time. The sense development of crescendo is explained in detail by Arnold Zwicky here. In brief, the word both moved from meaning “an increase in musical loudness” to “an increase in loudness generally” and from meaning a process to meaning the end result of that process, namely an event or state.

As it happens, climax has followed an analogous progression from process to end state, while another term, gamut, has gone from being the single lowest note in a musical scale to meaning a series of notes, and then a range of anything you care to mention (including, of course, Katharine Hepburn’s acting in the sublimely catty remark ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “She runs the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”) Both words also emigrated from technical domains.

An exquisite book cover — shades of Picasso, de Chirico, Dufy, and not sure who else.

Conclusion

Crescendo is indeed originally a musical term – like so many, from Italian (piano, adagio, allegro, etc.). It is the participle of the Italian verb crescere, to grow, itself a direct descendant of Latin crēscĕre to grow, which is the ultimate ancestor of the English word crescent.

Musically speaking, or when musicians speak about it, it is a process rather than an end state, as the following example clearly, if lengthily, illustrates (my emboldening):

“…during more than four minutes of music in which no performers are in view, the setting becomes the focus of the stage, as the moon rises over the forest. From a pianissimo beginning, more and more instruments enter in a gradual crescendo, the orchestral texture and colour becoming richer and more vibrant until the full orchestra plays,…”

From Beyond Falstaff in ‘Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor’: Otto Nicolai’s Revolutionary ‘Wives’, John R Severn, 2015.

That musicians mean one thing and Joe Public another does not invalidate the “climax” meaning. Whether it is a cliché is a matter of opinion. That it is widely used by journalists is an evidence-based fact, as discussed earlier. (The excellent Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners specifically applies the label “journalism” to its definition 2: “People sometimes describe an increase in the intensity of something, or its most intense point, as a crescendo.”)

Moreover, the sense of a progression, as in its strictly musical application, has not been ousted by the “climax” meaning. As Oxford Online defines it:

A progressive increase in intensity.

‘a crescendo of misery’

More example sentences:

‘Although many speakers struck bland notes individually, together these became a crescendo of shared concern.’

‘They believe that if you try hard enough there’s a steady crescendo of improvement and your fate is in your own hands.’

Yes, but what’s the plural?

Crescendos is rather more frequent than crescendoes. That second form, in fact, is used for the verb. Crescendi confines itself to music criticism.

Valery Gergiev. Yippee! I’m looking forward to experiencing him conducting Shosta 4 at the Embra Festival.

An eggcorn too far?

As long ago as 2006 the Eggcorn Database noted crashendo as an eggcorn for crescendo, e.g. It is obvious that a lot of folks are going to join the crashendo of shouting about this fiasco – – soon. It is actually a good thing for small business.

The creation of an eggcorn based on the “event” rather than the “process” meaning surely settles the debate, ;-), doesn’t it?


4 Comments

home in or hone in? Both right? Commonly confused words (3-4)


What’s the issue?

confused-man-in-suit

Which of these two sentences do you think is correct?

A teaching style which homes in on what is important for each pupil.

Or

A teaching style which hones in on what is important for each pupil.

Where you live in the English-speaking world will affect your opinion.

Which also means that whichever version you use, someone somewhere is likely to consider it wrong. (And if they are of the “grammar” pedantry persuasion, to take great delight in doing so.)

(But if you are not a British English speaker, the chances are that you’ll plump for the second one.)


A handful of examples

Home

Once again the media homed in on Tyrannosaurus.

American Scientist

DRUG dealers were today warned that the police were homing in on them after a man caught with drugs worth £26,000 was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail.

Bolton Evening News (UK)

Unfortunately, many Twitter users homed in on an Alan Joyce of Stanford, California. The American acquired more than 300 extra Twitter followers in the past 24 hours after tweeters confused him with the Qantas boss.

New Zealand Herald.

Hone

The writer Malcolm Hulke really seems to be honing in on the anxieties of the time, by focusing on the pollution of the planet and leaving the earth uninhabitable.

The Independent blog (UK).

Yes, they had those rhetorically brilliant 1858 debates, but the election of 1860, waged in a fiercely divided country, also honed in on the candidates’ appearances [sic].

Boston Globe.

Therefore, we hope to initially hone in on some sightings of Raja [sc. an animal] by villagers of the area.

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka).

hone_home_blackboard

 

(3 & 4 of 30 commonly confused words)


Tapas menu

  • Hone in seems to be as widely used as home in, if not more widely.
  • If you use it, you are in the majority, but several reputable sources view it as a mistake.
  • For many people, however, it is the only correct version, and makes sense semantically.
  • Both phrasal verbs can be seen as “skunked”, i.e. they will offend someone’s linguistic sense of smell, so they might be best avoided.
  • There is an argument that hone in is a separate development, not a mistake.
  • Users of each version can easily find justifications for them – specious or otherwise, selon votre goût.

À la carte menu

Read on …

Worldwide, more people use hone in than home in. 

A US copywriter spotted “home in” in a blog of mine, and kindly pointed out what she thought was a typo. She was surprised when I told her it was intentional. In a straw poll in her office – this was in the US, remember – everyone agreed hone was the only correct version.

malaprop

Mrs Malaprop, looking rather splendid.

That surprised me. I was familiar with the “home in” version, whose meaning has always seemed self-evident to me: I think of a  homing pigeon returning to a specific place, or a missile homing in on its target, and therefore to home in on something is to target it or pinpoint it (or, as the ODO definition goes, “Move or be aimed towards (a target or destination) with great accuracy“).

Consequently, as a British English speaker, I have occasionally winced when, for example, British HR-obots talked about “honing in on” a particular point or issue. Shurely shome mishtake, I thought, a misinterpretation, a malapropism, an eggcorn.

I first posted on this topic about 18 months ago, and since then, having looked at more data, I am obliged to change my mind. For it seems that the home in version is a) less frequent across all varieties of English and b) shows signs of being ousted even in British English by the hone in version.

Some figures

The figures I mention do not show exactly the same picture. Nevertheless …

1 I looked in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), which consists of about 2.6 billion words of data from US, British and several other varieties of English. (Or, to indicate its vast size another way, over 112 million sentences of English.)

I looked for in + on after the lemmas home and hone (i.e. all forms, home, homes, homed, homing). Overall, hone in on is slightly more frequent, with 700 instances against 655.

Looking at regional variation within those figures gives us this table:

Regional variety home in on hone in on
British English  283  67
American English 254  419
unknown 57  69
Australian English 16  37
Irish English 13  47
South African English 8  6
New Zealand English 6  12
East Asian English 6  8
Canadian English 5  30
Indian English 4  3
Caribbean English 3  2
TOTALS 655 700

Only in British (and three other varieties, with very low figures, also italicized) is home commoner. The ratio in BrE of home: hone is 80.9:19.1%.

Outside US and Canadian English, the highest ratio of hone: home is in Irish English (78.3:21.7%).

For the US, the ratio is 62.3:37.7%, and for Canada it is 85.7:14.3%.

2 Looking at the Global Corpus of Web-Based English (GloWbE, pronounced “globe”, 1.9 billion words from 1.8 millon web pages) produces rather different results.

Across all 20 varieties of English covered, hone greatly outnumbers home: 786 vs 283 instances.

The figures below show figures for US, Canadian and British English.

All US CAN GB
 HOMING IN ON 122 29 3 45
 HOMED IN ON 115 20 7 37
 HOMES IN ON 29 3 1 13
 HOME IN ON 17 2 1 8
 TOTAL 283 54 12 103

 

ALL US CA GB
 HONE IN ON 411 124 42 73
 HONING IN ON 154 42 20 31
 HONED IN ON 145 43 14 27
 HONES IN ON 76 20 5 12
 TOTAL 786 229 81 143

 

The ratio of hone:home for the US is higher still than in the OEC (81:19%), while for Canada it is very similar. For Britain, however, the figures are completely reversed in favour of hone: 58.1:41.9%.

In all other varieties, hone wins.

3 Google books Ngrams shows the lemma home +  in on as more frequent than hone +  in on, e.g. for the string home in on 10 occurrences per million words in 2000 vs 3 per million in 1999 for hone in on. It also shows a steep rise from the 1970s onwards.

home-vs-hone-grammar-hammer


(If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!)


But hone in on just doesn’t make sense! It’s obviously a crass mistake!!

Mmmmm. It clearly does make sense to very many people, including George Bush.**

  • For it to be a mistake, it would have to be clear that home in on was well established before the arrival of hone in on. That is not indisputably so, as Mark Liberman suggested in some detail a while ago.
  • The sense development of home in on is fairly clear (see OED citations at the end), but what of hone in on? After all, the core meaning of hone is “to sharpen a blade” (1788), so what has that got to do with “focussing on something”?

home_sweet_home

Showing the word’s metaphorical extension, the second OED definition of hone is “To refine or practise (a skill, technique, etc.); to make more effective or intense.” The first example in this category is from 1914, but then the next one is from 1955, and the OED notes “Before the mid 20th cent. usu. as part of an extended metaphor”. This is only ten years before the first appearance of hone in.

Well, as regards going from “sharpening” to “focussing”, Grammarist suggests this: “Hone means to sharpen or to perfect, and we can think of homing in as a sharpening of focus or a perfecting of one’s trajectory toward a target. So while it might not make strict logical sense, extending hone this way is not a huge leap.”

Judging by some online comments, some people even see a meaning distinction between the two forms: “’home in’ and ‘hone in’ do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. ‘Home in’ means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while ‘hone in’ means to pay close attention to or listen to something.”

Mark Liberman suggests in detail a development I shall summarize like this:

hone (down) X = “improve X by sharpening focus on the essentials and eliminating or ignoring extraneous materials” –> hone in on Y = “reach Y by a process of successively sharpening focus while eliminating extraneous material.”

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

A couple of dictionaries list hone in on with no comment, but several others consider it a mistake.

Several style guides take that same view; some set great store by the physical meaning of hone, in a way that comes close to being the etymological fallacy.

Oxford Dictionaries Online in both World English and US versions notes at home in on that hone is quite common in mainstream US writing, but that many people still consider it a mistake, as do Collins and freedictionary.com. Macmillan lists it with no comment.

  • The OED makes no bones about calling hone in the result of “folk etymology”.
  • My revised (4th) edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage covers similar territory to this blog more briefly, but suggests avoiding either word altogether.
  • Merriam-Webster notes the existence of hone in and suggests that it “seems to have become established in American usage”. The American Heritage College Dictionary (2004) gives “to direct one’s attention; focus” as a meaning of hone in.
  • Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, however, considers it unequivocally wrong.
  • The Guardian style guide notes, somewhat acidly, “home in on, not hone in on, which suggests you need to hone your writing skills.” Neither The Economist nor The Telegraph guides mentions it.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edn, notes: home in. This phrase is frequently misrendered hone in. (Hone means “to sharpen.”) Home in refers to what homing pigeons do; the meaning is “to come closer and closer to a target.”
  • The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage charts the development of hone in on, but notes that “If you use it, you should be aware that some people will think that you have made a mistake.”

Various online grammar sites also castigate hone in on as a mistake for home in on. One site (Grammarist), which is more permissive, attracted 57 tetchy and not so tetchy comments, mostly against hone in on.

So…? What should I do?

dryly_scratching_head_2

The hone in variant has been around for half a century. It is used in many parts of the Anglosphere. As discussed, some dictionaries list it without comment, while others warn against it, as do many usage and style manuals.

If you use it, you are unlikely to be misunderstood. However, if you do use it, bear in mind that some people will consider it a mistake, and therefore conclude that you can’t use English “correctly”. And others will come to the same conclusion if you use home in.

To steer clear of the problem, why not use focus on, concentrate on, zero in on, or any other synonym that suits your context?


** From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “An issue looming on the usage horizon is the propriety of the phrase hone in on. George Bush’s use of this phrase in the 1980 presidential campaign (he talked of ‘honing in on the issues’) caught the critical eye of political columnist Mary McCrory, and her comments on it were noted, approved, and expanded by William Safire. Safire observed that hone in on is a confused variant of home in on, and there seems to be little doubt that he was right. . . . Our first example of home in on is from 1951, in a context having to do with aviation. Our earliest record of its figurative use is from 1956. We did not encounter hone in on until George Bush used it in 1980. . . .”


 

*** OED definitions / earliest citations. (Italics in examples mine.)

HOME

  1. a. intr. Of a homing pigeon: to fly back to its ‘home’ or loft after being released at a distant point; to arrive at the loft at the end of such a flight. Hence of any animal: to return to some specific territory or spot after having left it or having been removed from it. Freq. with to.

1854   Poultry Chron. 1 573/2   It is generally considered that a cock [pigeon] homes quickest when driving to nest, and a hen when she is feeding squabs.

  1. intr a. Of a vessel, aircraft, missile, etc.: to move or be guided to a target or destination by use of a landmark or by means of a radio signal, detection of a heat signature, etc. Usu. with in on, or less commonly onon to, or towards. Cf. hone v.4

1920   Wireless World Mar. 728/2   The pilot can detect instantly from the signals, especially if ‘homing’ towards a beacon.

1947   J. G. Crowther & R. Whiddington Sci. at War 119   Torpedoes and bombs that follow or ‘homeon to their targets.

1968   Galaxy Mag. Nov. 107/1   The only way another ship could get here would be to home in on the drone that our Line ship homed in on.

NB: the previous version of the entry had a 1956 US citation for home in on, in the physical sense.

  • b. fig.To make something the sole object of one’s attention; to focus intently on something. Cf.hone v.4

1955   C. M. Kornbluth Mindworm 53   That was near. He crossed the street and it was nearer. He homed on the thought.

1971   New Scientist 16 Sept. 629/1   Mexico’s Professor S. F. Beltran homed in on education as a critical need.

HONE4

It should be noted that this is a new 3rd edn entry from 2004, which treats hone here as a homograph of hone3 with its meaning of “to sharpen.” I think previously both were grouped under the same headword.

Etymology:  Apparently a variant or alteration of another lexical item. Etymons: home v.
Apparently an alteration of home v. (see home v. 5a), probably arising by folk-etymological association with hone v.3

orig. U.S.

 intr. to hone in: to head directly for something; to turn one’s attention intently towards something. Usu. with on. Cf. home v. 5a.

1965   G. Plimpton Paper Lion vii. 62   Then he’d fly on past or off at an angle, his hands splayed out wide, looking back for the ball honing into intercept his line of flight.

1967   N.Y. Times 5 Nov. iii. 10/1   A few who know the wearer well recognize that something is different without honing in on the hairpiece.


2 Comments

peek, peak or pique. It piqued my interest or peaked my interest? Take a peek or peak? Commonly confused words (23-24)

(23 & 24 of 30 commonly confused words)

Peak, peek and pique. To take a peek, to feel piqued, etc.

Since all three words sound the same and all work both as nouns and verbs, it is perhaps inevitable that people sometimes muddle them up.

Quick definitions & examples

peaks_mountain_peaks_10_1919x1079

peak

A peak is the highest point of something, either physically or metaphorically, and if something peaks, it reaches its highest point:

Colors feel appropriate as well, from the brilliant white of snow-capped peaks to the deep blues in shots of water.

DVD Verdict.

Urban renewal has been in practice in the industrialized nations since the 1800s, but it hit its peak in the 1940s and 1950s.

Blog.

In the Nielsen poll, Mr Abbott’s personal popularity peaked more than two years ago and the longer-term trend has been down.

The Age (Aus).


peek

peak_take-a-peek

A peek means “a quick or furtive look” and if you peek, you “look quickly or furtively into or at something”. By extension, if something peeks out of something, it emerges or pokes out from it.

Security is tight and few are prepared to let outsiders peek inside.

Scotland on Sunday.

She gets her hair cut at the Muslim-owned beauty shop upstairs; she hands candy to the Somalian children who peek shyly in her store.

Boston Globe.

She noticed snowdrops peeking up through the grass beneath the trees, and pussy willows furring the hedge.

Source unknown.

“They’d push them across the table and say, ‘You might want to take a peek at this,'” he said.

NYT.


pique

Pique is a feeling of irritation or sulkiness resulting from a perceived slight, and, more rarely, means a quarrel; if something piques your curiosity, interest, appetite, and the like, it arouses it, and if you feel piqued, you feel resentful. In a rarer meaning, if you pique yourself on something, you take pride in it.

Among those in the audience was Ed Miliband, whose intellectual curiosity was piqued.

New Statesman.

“You don’t have to lecture us, Lizzy “, Kitty said, somewhat piqued.

Date & source unknown.

Yet right and left alike pique themselves on this imbecile prejudice.

Guardian, Comment is Free.

At the same time—and perhaps not illogically—she piqued herself on her talent for bedroom diplomacy , working hard to persuade the President to place women in important posts.

Telegraph.

…the Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville.

Believer Magazine.

Is the Attorney-General motivated by pique rather than by principle, and has she seriously considered her motives in bringing this case forward?

New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 2004.

Linguistic explanations?

Probably, deep down in our mental lexicons we have all stored this knowledge about these words, but in writing it is all too easy to bang down the wrong one.

Some cases may be eggcorns. For example, as the eggcorn database points out, a phrase such as “to peak someone’s interest” can be interpreted as a causative use of peak, that is, it means “to cause someone’s interest to peak”, just as “to walk the dog” means “to cause the dog to walk.” Similarly, if the “sun peaks over the horizon”, the image could plausibly be of the sun moving towards its zenith.

That said, however, editors and alert readers will still regard the use of one spelling for the other as a mistake, and such use is not legitimized by dictionaries. The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage sagely advises:

A writer needs to keep the meaning in mind and match it to the correct spelling.

And in some cases, e.g. “peek someone’s interest”, it is difficult to think of a convincing semantic explanation.

Peak wrongly used

The main villain of the piece seems to be peak, perhaps because it is the most common lemma of the three. It often replaces peek (noun) in the collocations to have a peek, to sneak a peek, to take a peek.

A Google search for “take a peek” in inverted commas throws up 14,600,000 results. It often seems to be used as a trite advertising trope, to titillate, tease, and tantalize the reader (That’s enough alliteration! – Ed) and make them imagine they are enjoying the privilege of an advance or exclusive look at something special, e.g. “Take a peek into the life of a nanny to the super rich / into X’s exclusive Chelsea Home/ into the new [fill in as appropriate]”. (Pass the sick bag, please.)

Searching for “take a peak” also throws up vast numbers. Some are deliberate puns (e.g. “Take a peak: fun new places to stay in European ski resorts”), but many are instead of the peek spelling: “Take a peak through the keyhole of three beautiful festive homes” [read “peek”] (This appeared in the online version of a newspaper on 18 December.)


Other examples from the Oxford English Corpus include:

That means no sneaking a peak [read “peek”] at work emails from outside the office, even if they are expecting non-work messages. Telegraph.

While one distracts a guard’s attention, the second – while pretending to be on the phone – can take a peak [read “peek”] at the guest list and get some names which they can then use. Telegraph, 2009.

With the verb such substitution seems less frequent, but does occasionally happen, e.g. I kept peaking [read “peeking”] at my watch. Blog.

Peak as a verb is also used where pique is correct, as in the next two examples.

It peaked [read “piqued”] my curiosity enough to buy the CD today during lunch. Blog.

Two aspects of Hox genes have peaked [read “piqued”] the interest of phylogeneticists. American Zoologist.


TIP: A good grammar/spellchecker should pick up these confusions.

TIP: If you’re British, think of the Peak District, i.e. an area of high summits. (You will also find this spelled wrong, but it is not very common.)


History

Peak…

as a noun has an immensely convoluted etymology, as the OED explains, deriving ultimately from the Old English word piic, meaning a pickaxe, or pick for breaking up the ground. It was first used to refer to the pointed summit of a mountain in the early 17th century. Its metaphorical use to refer to the zenith or highest point of something is late-18th century. The verb use “to reach a peak or highest point”, e.g. prices, floods, etc., is modern: the first OED citation is from 1937.

peek

This started life as a verb in the 14th century (the OED defines it as “To look through a narrow opening; to look into or out of an enclosed or concealed space; (also) to glance or look furtively at, to pry.”), and possibly derives from the word of similar meaning to keek.

(The OED points out the similarity of peek to peep and peer, words with the same/similar meanings Remembering that might help with spelling).

It became a noun by the common process of conversion, i.e. using an existing word in a different part of speech category, a use first recorded by the OED from 1636.

pique

attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533

attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, circa 1532-1533

As its spelling might suggest, this word comes from French: from the Middle French word pique, meaning “quarrel, resentment”, which in turn comes from the verb piquer, “to prick, pierce, sting”.

The OED first records the noun in a letter of 1532 by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. (This portrait makes it look as if an expression of slight pique was natural for him.)

The verb is first recorded in 1664.

(You will also find the spelling pique for piqué, a type of stiff cotton fabric.)


The three words discussed become incestuously entangled in all sorts of ways, as the following examples demonstrate. If you want to try correcting them, the answers are shown at the end.

 

  1. Star Clipper offers antique vessel aficionados an opportunity to take a peak inside this unique club for the modest cost of a 10-day passage. Boat (US), 2005.
  2. The sun was barely peaking over the horizon when he pulled himself from the bed. US fiction, 2005.
  3. He opened each door slowly and quietly, only so far as he needed to peak. British fiction, 2003.
  4. The reason that I’m asking is I’ve recently found my interest peeked in these two areas. Babelith Underground Forums, 2002 (Br)
  5. …they call me when they’re at the peek of it and they want to keep momentum going. CNN Transcripts, 2000
  6. About 50 people take part in the annual grape harvest, just at the peek of maturity in order to bring in the grapes at the best possible moment to insure the highest quality wine possible.
  7. Inferno represents Argento at the pique of his technical and experimental prowess. DVD Verdict, 2013.
  8. …frankly we can’t afford for me to get head over heels into every little hobby that peeks my interest, otherwise by now I would have taken those horse riding lessons, violin lessons, and be a world famous ice-skater! Blog, 2008.

  1. peek
  2. peeking.
  3. peek.
  4. piqued.
  5. at the peak of it.
  6. at the peak of maturity.
  7. at the peak of.
  8. piques.


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To defuse or diffuse a situation? Commonly confused words (19-20)

[19-20 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

Poll results as of 29 December:

  1. Leave as is=7
  2. Change to defuse=41
  3. Consult writer=8
  4. Use another verb=7
  5. Wouldn’t notice it as issue=2

What’s the issue?

In a sentence such as

She is coping because she has learned that forgiveness is the only way to diffuse ire and hatred

Birmingham Evening Mail, 2007

is diffuse a mistake for defuse?

Most dictionaries do not accept this use of diffuse, but Cobuild does, presumably, as an impeccably corpus-based venture, after having examined the evidence of actual use.

The Online Oxford Dictionary has a usage note (discussed later on); and the Cambridge Guide to Modern English Usage considers that when it comes to emotions (for example, as in the sample sentence above), the two distinct verbs overlap and converge.


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What does each word “mean”?

defuse: literally

defuse

In its literal meaning (sort of obviously, because it consists of the prefix de- + fuse (noun)), defuse means “to remove the fuse of an explosive device in order to prevent it from exploding”:

  • Explosives specialists tried to defuse the grenade;
  • The device was defused by police bomb disposal experts.

…and metaphorically

in its literal sense, according to the OED, it’s a relative newcomer (1943). As a metaphor (1958), it refers to making a situation less dangerous or volatile. In other words, a situation is conceived of as something explosive, like a bomb. Things that people typically defuse (noun objects of the verb) are situation(s), crisis/crises, tension(s), anger, conflict(s), row(s):

  • With a joke and a smile he was able to defuse many a tense situation and his presence in any room was unmistakable;
  • Now he is trying to defuse the crisis that the warmongers have created;
  • Their diplomacy has been aimed at defusing conflict between the North and the South [sc. Korea].

But defuse has a near-homophone. It is, of course, the verb diffuse. The only thing that distinguishes it from defuse in speech is that its first vowel is a short i /ˈfjuːz/ contrasting with the long i of /di:ˈfjuːz/, rhyming with tea.

keep-calm-and-defuse-the-tension

Are they synonyms?

In their core meanings, it seems hard to argue that they are.

diffuse: core meanings

Simplifying its meanings considerably (I hope you’ll allow the unattached participle), if something diffuses, it spreads, and if you diffuse it, you spread it, e.g. information diffuses and you can diffuse it.

(Because the subject of the intransitive use can be the object of the transitive, it falls into the class of verbs classified as ergative. The fullest explanation of the verb’s syntax is in the Cobuild Dictionary).

What diffuses / is diffused can be abstract or concrete, and in the latter case it has a specific physical meaning when light is involved: “to cause light to spread evenly to reduce glare and harsh shadows”, e.g. The morning light was diffused to a mucky orange by the pollution of the shuddering city.

Further examples

(From Cobuild and the Online Oxford Dictionary)

Intransitive

  • His heart sank, fear spread and diffused through his body;
  • Technologies diffuse rapidly.

Transitive

  • The problem is how to diffuse power without creating anarchy;
  • an attempt to diffuse new ideas;
  • It works efficiently to create and diffuse purchasing power throughout the economy and disseminate liquidity throughout the financial system.

Where is the overlap?

One quite often comes across sentences using diffuse with nouns which seem more appropriate to defuse, both in its literal—bomb, explosive—and metaphorical meanings—crisis, situation, tension, anger, conflict. Are these mistakes, or legitimate extensions of meaning and collocation?

It is a moot point. mute_pointCobuild recognizes it, but Collins, Macquarie and Merriam-Webster do not. Nor is it to be found in most dictionaries for learners of English, such as Cambridge, Macmillan, and the Oxford Advanced Learner’s. This suggests to me the possibility that, whereas the Cobuild editors acknowledged the weight of usage that is tending to legitimize what many people would still consider a mistake, the editors of dictionaries for learners prefer to discourage students from muddling up the two words. (It is also worth pointing out, incidentally, that the WordPress spellchecker flags diffuse ire and diffuse tension in this blog, and asks if I meant defuse.)

diffuse=defuse? Definition

Cobuild defines the contentious use of diffuse as follows:

“To diffuse a feeling, especially an undesirable one, means to cause it to weaken and lose its power to affect people”: The arrival of letters from the Pope did nothing to diffuse the tension.

The Oxford Online Dictionary does not include the meaning in its definition of diffuseinstead it has a usage note:

Diffuse means, broadly, ‘disperse’, while the non-literal meaning of defuse is ‘reduce the danger or tension in’. Thus sentences such as Cooper successfully diffused the situation are regarded as incorrect, while Cooper successfully defused the situation would be correct. However, such uses of diffuse are widespread, and can make sense: the image in, for example, “only peaceful dialogue between the two countries could diffuse tension” is not of making a bomb safe but of reducing something dangerous to particles and dispersing them harmlessly.

In two minds?

twominds

I find myself considerably (if one can be, linguistically speaking) in (or of, in the US) two minds. On the one hand, since this form is especially common in newspapers and transcripts, I suspect that urgent deadlines are often responsible, not to mention a certain amount of journalistic sloppiness. If I’m being over-literal, to my mind diffuse = “to spread”, and therefore diffusing tension spreads it rather than dissipating it.

A legitimate extension of meaning?

However, “spreading” is not the only meaning of to diffuse, and it is here that its physical meaning of “dispersing” light comes into play. Light that is diffused is made softer and less intense, so I suppose that diffusing  tension disperses it and thereby renders it less potent. I follow the logic of the Oxford editor’s argument, even though it still reads like special pleading to this old fuddy-duddy (what a wonderful word that is!).

It also worth noting that both Cobuild and the Oxford note reproduced above have the same noun object collocate: tension.

So, I can see that there may well be a shift in collocational primings going on. In other words, more and more people are psychologically primed by their experience of the word diffuse to associate it with the semantic set of tension, crisis, etc, and to associate that set with diffuse rather than defuse.

However, that collocational shift still raises problems for me. If diffuse is “correct” when used metaphorically, and in specific collocations, e.g. tension / row / controversy / crisis, why would it not be “correct”  when applied literally (i.e. ?he diffused the device). But, even though diffuse turns up several times with bomb and words in that set, it still feels completely wrong, at least to me.

Conclusions

conclusion

There seem to me to be three ways of looking at this issue in “correct usage” terms:

  1. At the strict, i.e. “prescriptive”, end of the spectrum, the only correct verb for the contexts discussed above is defuse.
  2. At the other, i.e. “descriptive”, end, one could take the view that diffuse is correct in all collocations that match those of defuse, i.e. including its literal use with bombs, etc. Though that use must, surely, have started out as a homophone mistake, we accept that it is now part of standard usage, and therefore applicable in all circumstances.
  3. We adopt a sort of Buddhist “middle way” approach and say that the two words are synonyms in some contexts, but not in others. Thus diffuse tension would be correct, but diffuse a bomb would not. There is nothing linguistically perverse about this, since synonymy operates with meanings, not words, and therefore works with some collocates but not others: a tax bill can be large or hefty, a building can only be large. However, this “middle way” would probably lead to a lot of borderline cases.

recliningbuddha

Further examples, facts & figures

In the OEC, these two lemmas do not differ much in frequency: they occur just over twice in every million words of text (compared to, say, “big”, which occurs nearly 400 times per million).

Their collocations overlap very little: apart from noun objects, as shown below, the adverb quickly and the verbs try and attempt.

There are eight noun objects with which they both collocate. They are listed in descending order, according to the ratio of occurrences of defuse to diffuse: situation, anger, confrontation, standoff, tension, row, crisis, bomb. The ratios range from just under 3:1 for situation to nearly 12:1 for bomb. In other words, for the most literal meaning, diffuse encroaches far less on defuse than it does with less literal meanings.

In absolute rank order as collocates of diffuse, the order for the nouns listed above is: situation, tension, crisis, bomb, anger, row, confrontation, standoff.

  • Nevertheless, the dispute over the islands will continue to cause political and economic headaches for China and Japan, with neither acting to defuse the tensionsBusiness Insider, 2013;
  • Yet the frenzied days and sleepless nights seem to have averted a major embarrassment for the administration and defused a crisis that threatened to upend relations between the two countriesNYT, 2012;
  • The Scott report is a time-bomb stealthy politicians and officials are trying to diffuseGuardian, 1995;
  • Meanwhile, the European Union is trying to diffuse the controversy by calling for a voluntary media code of conduct.—CNN transcripts, 2006.


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Voracious or veracious readers? Commonly confused words (7-8)

too,two

[7-8 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]


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I’ve seen a few profiles on Twitter of people who call themselves “veracious readers“. Presumably they mean “voracious readers“. If so, their self-styled title is deeply ironic: even if they read a lot, they cannot be very attentive to the spelling of their reading matter.

Voracious voraciousrefers to people who eat a lot, and then, as a metaphor, to people who engage in an activity with great gusto and enthusiasm. At several removes, it’s related to the verb devour, since both derive from Latin vorāre.

Veracious, in contrast, is a really rather rare word, meaning “truthful”, e.g. a veracious witness to great and grave events. So, a “veracious reader” would be a truthful one, though I doubt that is the claim people describing themselves as such are making. Like voracious, it too derives ultimately from Latin, from the word for “true”, vērus, which has given us words such as verify, verity, and the vera of Aloe vera.

Veracious is also used by mistake in phrases such as *veracious appetite instead of the correct voracious appetite.

Of course, veracious may be just a homophone typo for voracious. What I mean is that it is fatally easy to have two words in your mental lexicon that sound exactly the same, and to key one instead of the other, such as “two” for “too“. You know the difference, but when you type with only half a mind on what you’re doing, the wrong one takes over.

copyeditor-cartoon

In case you’re not convinced that the two words sound the same, here is the phonetic spelling of voracious /vəˈreɪʃəs/, and here it is for veracious: /vəˈreɪʃəs/. Identical. The villain of the piece is that tricksy little symbol /ə/, which occurs in the first and last syllables. It represents the “uh” sound known as a “schwa“, which is responsible for a huge number of spelling mistakes in English.

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Eggcorns: On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks?

on-tenterhooks

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What does it mean?

As we all know, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because we don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as we feared, be it A-level 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 constituents. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenderhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is?

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

The 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.

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

leeds
In the image here of Leeds in the 18th century (undated, but mid-, 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 is from Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849).

Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV. 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.“.

tenterhooks

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“.

isaac_disraeli

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”).

However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tentherhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only in 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
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.


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Lovely Lady Mondegreen

Has this happened to you?

How often do we ask someone to repeat something we didn’t quite catch? Then sometimes we don’t ask and we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. It must have happened to everyone at some point. An extreme example is when someone is hard of hearing. A contributor to an online forum mentioned her somewhat deaf father’s hilarious mishearings: asked for a passage from scripture he understood a boa constrictor.

C-Jimi-Ladyland-po_1711987i

One form of language that is easy to mishear or misinterpret is songs, hymns, and anthems. The often-quoted classic example is Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky being understood as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Wikipedia suggests that Jimi knew about this mishearing and played up to it.

gladly-cross-eyed-bearAnother example, possibly mythical, is Gladly, the cross-eyed bear for Gladly my cross I’ll bear from a late nineteenth-century hymn.

Keep Thou my all, O Lord, hide my life in Thine;
O let Thy sacred light over my pathway shine;
Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I’ll bear;
Hear Thou and grant my prayer, hide my life in Thine.

From Keep Thou My Way, Fanny Crosby, 1894.

Kids often do it

We always want to make sense of what we hear. So if the sounds that reach our ears don’t make sense to our brains, we reinterpret them or fill in the gaps with words we do know. Adults don’t have to do that too often, because they know a lot. Children know less about the world, and fewer words. That’s why they can interpret words new to them in strange ways.

Mother:

What did you learn at school today?

Girl:

I know a song about rabbits!

Mother:

Oh? Can you sing it…?

Girl:

Oh yes! it goes – Speed, bunny boat, like a bird on the wing…!

A special name for slips of the ear

Slips of the ear of this kind are known as mondegreens. The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the word in 1954, and she explained why:
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: ‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen'”. But the exact words of the ballad are (in the closest I can find to the original Scots):

YE highlands, and ye lawlands, Oh! quhair hae ye been? They hae slaine the Earl of Murray, And hae laid him on the green.

Her mishearing of “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” illustrates the mistaken analysis of word boundaries that is typical of mondegreens. Technically, it is known as metanalysis. Historically, metanalysis has produced an adder from a nadder and a newt from an ewt. Ultimately, it gave us an orange from the Arabic nāranj.
LadyMondegreen
Perhaps Lady Mondegreen looked as sad as this when she lost her Earl of Murray.

The celebrated columnnist William Safire commented on mondegreens and similar here. I blogged previously about the similar phenomenon of eggcorns.