Friday, July 30, 2021

The Economist's "Johnson" beckons me off my usage high horse.

 Well, at least a little. This week's issue of The Economist, in its "Johnson" column, a regular feature dealing with usage matters and named in honor of Dictionary of the English Language author Dr. Samuel Johnson, is captioned "Death nails and foul swoops". It so appears in the print edition; the on line edition linked above, which may be fully available only to Economist subscribers, gives the title as "Sometimes solecisms can reveal linguistic ingenuity." Merriam-Webster's first definition of "solecism" is "an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence: also a minor blunder in speech." 

The particular solecism to which the columnist refers is the "eggcorn," defined as "a particular kind of mishearing of a word or phrase" that "has a logic that makes it alluring." The word "eggcorn," which is a mishearing of "acorn," has such a logic. "Acorns and eggs have similar shapes, and both produce life." The "Johnson" author gives several other examples of eggcorns. "Death nail" for "death knell" makes sense because nails are associated with death, being used to secure coffins. "Knell," meaning the sound of large bell, such as a church bell that would be rung for a funeral, is not now widely familiar, except perhaps to those who have memorized the opening line of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard": "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day." Similarly, "in one foul swoop" makes more sense to contemporary readers than "fell swoop," as "fell," when used as an adjective, and the fourth entry for that word in Merriam-Webster, meaning "fierce, cruel, terrible"; or "sinister, malevolent"; or "very destructive, deadly"; or (in Scotland) "sharp, pungent"; is not much in use these days, whereas "foul," which fits all of these definitions, is. 

The author mentions several other eggcorns with approval. One is "to change tact" for "to change tack," presumably because most people don't know how to sail. Still, to me, "tact" seems questionable. Again, I resort to Merriam-Webster, which gives two definitions of "tact": the first is "a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense"; the second is "sensitive mental or aesthetic perception." So, would a "change of tact" mean a loss of the "keen sense" or of sensitivity? That doesn't seem good. Arguably, I suppose, it could mean that the "keen sense" tells you that you should change your approach in order to "maintain good relations" or "avoid offense."

This all makes me reconsider something I posted here twelve years ago, about what I called "the rein vs. reign syndrome." My first objection in that post, to the Wall Street Journal's referring to an effort to "reign in" instead of "rein in" a jury award, is one I stand by. The intended meaning here is to check or decrease the award, as one checks the speed of a horse by pulling on a rein. The problem comes with the expression "to give [or allow] free rein." This is now frequently changed to "free reign." To give a horse free rein is to allow it to proceed at its own chosen pace. To allow a person free rein is a metaphorical way of saying they are free to do as they choose. As for "reign," I resort once again to Merriam-Webster, which gives several definitions of reign, both as a noun and as a verb. I'm more interested in the verb definition, the third of which is "to be predominant or prevalent." The question then becomes whether the giving of "free reign" refers to oneself or to another. In the contexts in which I've seen it, I think it mostly, if not entirely, means the latter. Consequently, I now believe "free reign" for "free rein" is a true eggcorn. 

It occurs to me that the tact vs. tack and rein vs. reign controversies may reflect class or geographical differences. These days, to many Americans sailing is considered an "elite" avocation, so "tack" may seem foreign to them, although I doubt this holds true in some coastal and lakes regions. Similarly, rein is an equestrian term that would be unknown to most of those in urban areas, and to many of the poor in others. It would be interesting to see how these substitutions are distributed geographically and by average income.