Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


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

4-minute read


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

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

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

That raises two obvious major questions.

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

In other words, how common is it vs champ?

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

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

It also raised in my mind…

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

And, of course,

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

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

Q1: Has chomp come into common use?

Short answer:

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

Longer answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short answer:

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

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

Longer answer:

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

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

The dictionaries consulted deal with it as follows:

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

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

Who knows?

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

I tried that.

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

17% I’m not U.S. & wld leave

42% I’m not U.S. & wld change

08% I’m U.S. & wld leave it

33% I’m U.S. & wld change it

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

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

Merry Christmas, btw!



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

3-minute read

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

notes a British English website.

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

an Irish newspaper recounts.

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

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

Any decent spellchecker ought to spot the mistake.

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

What does seamlessly mean?

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

Each song is seamlessly integrated into the film.

The conversation flowed seamlessly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Auden used it in Under Sirius (1949):

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

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

And, finally, seamlessly the adverb premieres in 1906:

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

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

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

Something like that, anyway.

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

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

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

Not really the meaning people want.

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

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

But here seenlessly means “invisibly”, I suspect.

1 John, 19:23-24

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

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

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

Please read. This is of uppermost importance

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

of upmost importance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

(5-minute read)

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

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

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

And here’s an example with the eggcorned version:

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

And then there’s POTUS’s example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1734,   London Daily Post, 27 Nov.

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

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

Daniell scaped scotchfree by Gods prouidence.

1567, J. Maplet Greene Forest f. 93

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

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)