The other day, I was watching Law & Order: SVU at the gym, while on the elliptical machine. Confession: This is one of my favorite things to do at the gym. Please do not judge. On the show, which I was viewing in closed captioning (also a favorite thing to do, at least at the gym), one of the characters used the word jive, or was interpreted as having done so via the captions, to convey that something didn't add up. I stopped in my elliptical tracks (really, I kept going—nowhere, as it were—but for the sake of drama let's say I stopped) and thought: Is that right?
Misuses of words are fast and frequent and come in any number of varieties. They are not all the same. Sometimes what appears to be a misuse isn't, because words often have more than one meaning, and even more confusingly, sometimes those meanings stand in stark contrast to one another. English language, you are a beast, but we love you! There is joy that comes with the infinite potential to go awry (a rye?) when confronted by doppelgänger-type words, though. We get to laugh at the mistakes. Take the recent example highlighted by Arnold Zwicky, the Correction of the Week from the September 24 issue of the New Yorker (p. 95):
From the San Jose Mercury News.
An item in the July 12 News of the World column about police confronting beachgoers incorrectly reported what the beachgoers were doing. They were not flouting their breasts, they were flaunting them.
Flouting: "to treat with contemptuous disregard"
Flaunting: "to display or obtrude oneself to public notice"
Of course, there's a second transitive sense of flaunt that means "to treat contemptuously"—so is there any need to explain the confusion? Per Merriam-Webster, if you use it in that way, "you should be aware that many people will consider it a mistake."
While language is ever-evolving and people ever prone to at least the occasional mishap in usage, it seems clear that if we're going to call someone out for messing up (we all will, at some point or another), we should know which variety of mistake is occurring. Zwicky does this, alerting us to the term eggcorn and declaring the flouting/flaunting mistake not one, ultimately. His use of the word inspired us to take a further look at a few of the most likely classifications of ways in which we confuse our words. This list is not all-inclusive, of course; send me any favorites that I missed.
The Eggcorn. What's this? Wonderfully named for a mistaken attempt to say acorn, these are the expressions that arise because the speaker has heard or interpreted the phrase or word incorrectly. Via Wikipedia, they are "an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker's dialect." For instance, nip it in the butt instead of nip it in the bud. From a Language Log post in 2003, "Chris Potts has told me about a case in which a woman wrote egg corns for acorns. This might be taken to be a folk etymology, like Jerusalem for girasole in Jerusalem artichoke (a kind of sunflower). But it might also be treated as something like a mondegreen (also here and here), the kind of slip of the ear that is especially common in learning songs and poems. Finally, it's also something like a malapropism, where a word is mistakenly substituted for one of similar sound shape." Some examples: old-timers' for Alzheimer's, baited breath for bated breath, mating name for maiden name, on the spurt instead of on the spur of the moment. If you've ever used one of these, though, after all is set and done, you may congratulate yourself because they "are errors that exhibit creativity or logic" and "often involve replacing an unfamiliar, archaic, or obscure word with a more common or modern word." (There are so many, and many are fantastic. Bedside manor? Or, as in the above, flea bargain. Or even eggorn, in the lead photo above, a misspelling of eggcorn.)
The Mondegreen. This is a "mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning. It most commonly is applied to a line in a poem or a lyric in a song." The term was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in a Harper's Magazine essay in November 1954. Merriam-Webster's Peter Sokolowski says his personal mondegreen is "Lucy in the sky with Linus," and adds, "note the impeccable logic." My personal mondegreen has to do with a Bon Jovi song heard in my younger years, in which "You give love a bad name" became "we all live in America" (I was extremely confused back then). More popularly, there's the mishearing of "Soup and salad bar" for "Suicide blonde." Or Robert Palmer's "Might as well face it, you're addicted to love," which has apparently been heard by many as "Might as well face it, you're a dick with a glove." In these cases "logic is a powerful influence," as Sokolowski told us.
The Confusables. Here is a quiz on the "notorious confusables" which include weather/whether; they're/their/there; accept/except; affect/effect; quite/quiet; and, well, you get the picture. This is "an informal term for two or more words that are easily confused with one another because of similarities in spelling (such as desert and dessert), pronunciation (allusion and illusion), and/or meaning (imply and infer)," per Richard Nordquist for About.com Grammar & Composition. Other examples: principal/principle; discreet/discrete; capitol/capital; and so on. These are some of the most basic, and common, ways we go wrong, including those tricky contractions (it's vs. its), etc. There are hundreds of them.
Doublets. These are words with history; they share etymology but have split over time—like peleton/platoon; gender/genre; chief/chef; pique/pike; canal/channel; count/compute; suit/suite; guard/ward; and grammar/glamou
Glamour has an interesting history. It originated as a Scottish derivative of grammar that meant "a magic spell"--a sense attributable to the former popular association of scholarly knowledge with occult practices. The OED indicates that it was "introduced into the literary language" by Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century. By the middle of the 1800s, it had acquired the meaning "a magical or illusory beauty or charm," from which sense developed its now common use to describe the kind of dazzling appeal associated with movie stars and fashion models. Its former connotations of magic have now been largely replaced by connotations of glitter ...
Unless you are extremely well-versed in history or perhaps a vampire who's existed for many hundreds of years, you're probably fairly unlikely to confuse these word pairs, though they may well frustrate people who are learning English as a second language.
Janus Words. In this case, the words are the same, but the meanings are different, even opposite. If you're chuffed, you might be pleased, but you could be anything but. Like Janus, the two-faced Roman god, these words have two sides on the same coin. They're also called contronyms or autoantonyms (implying that such words form their own antonym, yikes). A couple of examples of such are sanction ("to allow"/"to prohibit") and peruse ("to read attentively"/"to read casually"). Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, who discussed chuffed ("pleased"/"disgruntled") in a piece from earlier in the year, adds cleave ("to join"/"to separate"); dust ("to remove"/"to add"); and seed ("put seeds in"/"take seeds out"). Crazy, right? On the plus side, chances of going wrong with a Janus word are fairly minimal, not only because each word has two meanings but also because, as Fogarty writes, "there aren’t a ton of them; most lists I’ve seen have fewer than 30 words." A few more, here.
Snowclones. Via a Language Log post in 2004: "At last a suitable name has been proposed for the some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists that have received occasional discussion on Language Log (here, in the first instance). I mean formulae like these (where the N, X, Y, Z are filled in to taste):"
If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.
In space, no one can hear you X.
X is the new Y.
Also, black is the new snowclone, snowclone is the new black, my big fat Greek snowclone, in Soviet Russia snow clones YOU, and so on. These may not be misuses of words, per se, but they're tired and overused, so we're including them here anyway. Also, we love the word snowclone.
Misquotations. This is a more generalized category than the above, but it's worth a mention on its own. In August, Maria Konnikova wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which she discussed the omnipotence of certain misquotations. We all say "Beam me up, Scotty!" not the correct "Beam us up, Mr. Scott!" And despite what we all repeat as a famous movie quote, no one said "Play it again, Sam!" in Casablanca. Instead, well, watch:
Elsewhere in the movie, Bogey demands Sam simply to "Play it!" Further, Marie Antoinette never said that thing we say she did about cake, Konnikova writes, and one of my favorite expressions should really be ordered this way: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" in order to be true to the original. Also from Shakespeare, "double, double" is not "bubble, bubble" (which makes the latter a kind of eggcorn?). Yet many of the mistaken quotes have persisted, and in quite a few of those cases, if you repeat the phrases the right way, you'll probably viewed with more consternation than if you said them the way everyone else does.
As for Law & Order: SVU, it should be jibe.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.