Launching a new project of the calibre of the Eggcorn Database — modest as it is in the greater scheme of internet things, certainly increased my stress levels. Suddenly there are registered users and opinionated commenters (not to mention technical glitches). So I have been fighting feelings inadequacy and anxiety about potentially disappointing the learned contributors (I don’t think they read this blog, so I can freely say I’m scared stiff; yes, it’s silly, I know).

But Google has started picking up the site — search for “further adieu” or “deformation of character”, and we will come first, which is very satisfying. A search for “eggcorn” has us in third place, after Language Log (which deserves to come first). We got a very nice write-up there, just like same on Céline’s blog, Naked Translations, in English and French.

Which brings me to the second half of this post’s title. In an earlier post, Céline wonders about dull as ditchwater vs dull as dishwater. She actually got laughed at by some friends for using the former.#[1]

If one of the two variants is the original, and the other a spontaneous reinterpretation that has taken hold, we would have an excellent candidate for an eggcorn.

The reality is, it turns out, more complicated. Céline already indicated that usage and idiom dictionaries list dull as ditchwater (or ditch water), an only a few admit dishwater as an alternative. A good site to conduct this type of search is We find that the 1922 edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus lists only ditch water in its entry on dullness, but both under uncleanness.

In journalistic writing, we have a contrasted picture: the News search turns up 11 examples with dishwater, but none at all with ditchwater (whether in one or two words); the Guardian news archive, on the other hand, has more than twice the number of article hits for the more traditional term. We also find that the Guardian copy editors frown upon dishwater as this excerpt from a 1999 “Corrections and clarifications” column shows:

Near miss, from page 9, Media, October 11: “Both series demonstrated that you could show how scientists develop an argument… without making it as dull as dishwater.” Ditchwater (stagnant water in a ditch) is dull; dishwater (water in which the dishes have been washed) may describe soup, for example, that is thin and with very little taste.

Let’s see, since soup can’t be dull (idiomatically speaking), and soup can be like dishwater, something else can’t be dull as dishwater. Not really entirely convincing.

A search on Google for English pages doesn’t agree with the Guardian copy editors: 8,600 Ghits for “dull as dishwater” vs 2525 (995 + 1530) for “dull as ditchwater/ditch water”.

To further muddy the waters, whether in the sink or in the ditch, there is another possible source for the shift. Still on, we find the Columbia World of Quotations, which includes this one by Italo Calvino:

Novels as dull as dishwater, with the grease of random sentiments floating on top.

Expressive, and certainly belonging in the domestic rather than to the rural sphere.

This, however, is not the original quotation: Calvino wrote in Italian. I have traced it to the 1980 collection of essays Una pietra sopra. Discorsi di letteratura e società. The English title of the essay in question is The novel as spectacle, and it has appeared in several English collections of Calvino’s essays and lectures. I would very much like to know the original Italian version of this quotation — if anyone has it available, please leave a comment.

So what is going on here? A reinterpretation in casual writing has certainly taken place. Yet, dull as dishwater can never be considered as strictly speaking wrong. Everyone is free, after all, to choose whatever imagery for dullness they prefer.

For the time being, I hesitate to call ditchwater»dishwater an eggcorn in the strictest sense, even though it is a case of interesting semantic shift in an idiomatic expression. Maybe the Eggcorn Database needs a category for these as well.

But the story still doesn’t end here. Céline predicts that, given the advances of household technology, we will soon be seing dull as (a) dishwasher. I’m afraid, that’s already the case: a handful of Ghits for either of the two versions (with and without article). And most look genuine, or seriously confusing:

  • I got back from Scotland eariler today, it was dull as a dishwasher- and not one of them new fangled glow in the dark interweb magical dishwaters either. (link).
  • It is a sad story that the chief music critic of the New York Times must resort to such vulgarities as ‘Saint-Saens’s dull-as-dishwasher first act’ to spice up his article. (OPERA-l)

The eggcornologists are on the case.

Let us finally add that in French, as Céline reminds us, the canonical image for dullness and boredom is … rain (ditchwater-to-be, so to speak). Other colloquial expressions evoke death: ennueux à mourir (just like the German sterbenslangweilig), and the now-out-of-date youthspeak qualifier mortel (the meaning of which has shifted towards the expression of enthusiastic approval, ie it now means great).

[1]: Proof that I didn’t read her post carefully enough — the hilarity was abou dishwasher, as Céline clarifies in her comment.

3 comment(s) for 'Eggcorns and ditchwater'

  1. (Comment, 2005-02-19 18:44 )

    Hi Chris, just to mention that I got laughed at for saying “dull as a dishwasher”. Just a detail! And secondly, you’re not the only one feeling inadequate sometimes, considering all the very clever people out there, so don’t worry too much, I for one think you’re doing a fantastic job and I thank you for enriching the Internetwebbiethingy with your musings and discoveries!

  2. (Comment, 2005-02-20 08:07 )

    I would say your doing a great job too. If you need any help with the eggcorn dev. just let me know, I’d be glad to help out.

  3. (Comment, 2005-03-14 23:16 )

    je voudrais proposer un synonyme… “ennuyeux comme la Cote Desfossés”