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

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

Please read. This is of uppermost importance

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

of upmost importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Getting off scot-free or scotch-free? Nothing to do with Scotland, anyway

(4-minute read)

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

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

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

And here’s an example with the eggcorned version:

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

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

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

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

(Nor does it have anything to do with the American slave Dred Scott.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1734,   London Daily Post, 27 Nov.

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

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

Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.

1567, J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 93

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

If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

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

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

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

  c1475   Songs & Carols (Percy Soc.) 94

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

Scott used it with that meaning:

Are you to stand shot to all this good liquor?

1821, Scott, Kenilworth II. vii. 184

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrated Letters, John B. Keane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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









Worst enemy or worse enemy? Eggcorns (6)

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

In the previous blog, I mentioned the eggcorn ‘own worse enemy’, and raised various questions about the original version ‘to be one’s own worst enemy’:

  1. What is its origin?
  2. Are there similar idioms in other European languages? and…
  3. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases

For reasons which I hope will become clear, I’ll start with 2.

Is there a similarly worded idiom in other European languages?

Yes, in several.

(Handily, Oxford bilingual dictionaries online seem to cover the same source language (English) items, which makes comparison delightfully easy.)

For French/Italian/Portuguese and Spanish there is a word-for-word equivalent:

être son pire ennemi;
essere il peggiore nemico di se stesso;
é o seu pior inimigo;
su peor enemigo es ella misma (Last two are equivalent to she’s her own worst enemy.)

German doesn’t mirror the Romance languages, and instead has niemandem schaden als sich selbst ‘to harm nobody other than oneself‘.

But, perhaps curiously, Russian mirrors the Romance languages: он сам себе злейший враг,
‘He himself to himself is his worst/most ferocious enemy’.

Now, has this same image/metaphor occurred to different people at different times in different languages, both Romance and Slavic?


It goes without saying that languages borrow whole phrases from each other (‘It goes without saying’ is a loan-translation from French ça va sans se dire). But if a phrase spreads over several languages, it inevitably raises the suspicion that there must be a common source.

To be one’s own worst enemy’ sounds like a time-honoured cliché. And where would one look for a common source for t-h clichés? To our linguistic alma mater, Latin, of course.

Where does the phrase come from?

Searches in several sources were initially fruitless because they did not even give the phrase pageroom.  However, Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it in a list of must-avoid clichés, the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has it, and, finally, the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés (also known as The Cat’s Pyjamas) suggests that it goes back to ‘Greek and Roman times’, an ancestry which is frustratingly vague.

However, a concatenation of googles eventually led me to none other than Cicero. In a letter to Atticus he describes Julius Caesar as

sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse; Cicero, ad Atticum X. 12a.

Word for word, that is ‘but still, nothing is more harmful than he himself to himself’, which sounds a bit like a poor back-translation from Klingon, or Yoda’s version of ‘He’s his own worst enemy.

Yet, lo and behold (a phrase that never actually appears in the Bible, despite its pseudo-biblical patina), a translation of Cicero’s letter renders the Latin as ‘he has no worse enemy than himself’, which seems remarkably close to the modern, clichéd version.

Beyond Cicero, I can venture no further, though Google, that propagator of wrongly attributed quotes, suggests an Aristotelian origin.

They’re their own worst enemy
In the original eggcorn that led me down the primrose path of this particular phrase, we had ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’. For American readers I suspect the plural verb reads oddly in any case, since collectives regularly take a singular verb in U.S. usage. But here what intrigued me was the singular enemy; the sentence seems to be totally AC/DC as regards singular/plural: collective + plural verb + plural possessive + singular complement.

On a strict interpretation of concord, could it be argued that their should be followed by enemies? Probably. But then the thought occurs that enemy itself has a collective meaning (1.1) that allows both singular and plural verb concord, e.g. the enemy are/is already upon us.

In one small corpus, a search for ‘their own worst enem.*’ had the two variants neatly and exactly balanced. In a larger one, enemies was preponderant in a ratio of 132:73. Below is an example of each kind.

Do France’s squabbling Socialists have a future? Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies.

A whole generation of people has been lost. Ultimately, the terrorists are their own worst enemy. The utopian goals most terrorist organizations set leave their foes few options.

I can discern no difference between them.

All I can see is PLURAL SUBJ + PLURAL VERB + their + own.

So, is this in the end a classic case of linguistic free variation?


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

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

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

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

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

It also piqued my curiosity in other ways.

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

How frequent is the eggcorn?

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

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

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

Is it on the increase?

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

How old is the eggcorn?

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

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

How did/does it come about?

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

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


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).

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful or interesting, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Sign up and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and whatever language point floats my boat on any given day according to my mood swings. Enjoy!

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.