Unintended consequences

Pas de V.F., désolée.

So I’m quietly editing one of literally hundreds of overdue eggcorns — the lovely image of being in (a) high dungeon — when I come across a cite from an academic publication that so strikingly illustrates Hartman-Skitt-McKean’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation that I hesitate at first to believe my eyes. I read it once, I read it twice, but no, the writer sounds far from being punning and playful. The venue is the journal College English, the year 1983, and the topic a raging controversy over who is licensed to dispense advice on English usage, and what it should be. In a letter to the editor, Paul Kaser of Kings River College, Reedley, CA, writes:

Newsweek’s Educational Division’s inaccurate touting of their “Forty Mistakes” as the most common errors of English usage hardly justifies Suzette Haden Elgin’s shrill denunciation of their effort (CE, September 1982). Her article gives the impression that the Newsweek staff members (perhaps mere journalists!) have been caught poaching on the royal academic preserve and therefore deserve to be slapped down and mocked with name-calling and populist disdain.

Is this why Professor Elgin got into such high dungeon over the list? Clearly she wants to attack exaggerated squeamishness over English usage, but need she, in doing so, insist that “I Love to Refer Back to the First Time We Met” and “I Called You No Less Than Three Times a Day” are not usage errors? As James Thurber warned, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards.”

Professor Elgin demonstrates in her first sentence that she is not concerned with such nit-pickeries as misplaced modifiers (”I only wish …”), but this unconcern hardly gives her leave to denounce as pedants and quibblers those who are troubled by such sloppy use of the language. […]

Two Comments on Suzette Haden Elgin’s “The Top Forty Mistakes”. Paul Kaser, Bertram Lippman. _College English, Vol. 45, No. 8 (Dec., 1983), pp. 824-826_

Just like this impassioned letter, the first pages of both Suzette Haden Elgin’s original article and her reply to the criticism are accessible on JSTOR.

Cendrillon : vair ou verre ?

Les pantouffles de Cendrillon, sont-elles fait de verre (comme l’écrit Perrault) ou de vair, la fourrure de l’écureuil petit-gris, comme l’ont affirmé Balzac et Littré ? Wikipédia est assez exhaustive sur ce sujet…

On Language Log, Mark Liberman tackles the thorny question whether Cinderella’s slippers were made of glass (verre in Perrault’s French version, which Disney based their version on and thus re-popularised the fairy tale in the English-speaking world) or the fur of the grey squirrel (vair). The two terms are homophonous in French. Eggcorn or no eggcorn ?

I happen to have posted about the subject last December in the Usenet group soc.motss, and, unlike Mark, came to the conclusion that “glass” is probably not an error.

Below I reproduce my post. A few things to keep in mind:

  1. Perrault’s version is by no means the original of the story. He was, like the Grimm brothers who came later, a collector and editor.
  2. The French Wikipédia entry claims that vair, although a precious clothing material, was not used in shoe-making.
  3. Vair is indeed a current, if rare and specialised, French word.
  4. If verre is indeed what was intended by Perrault, I doubt the change to vair was a mishearing — I’d opt for a kind of learned hypercorrection.

On Dec 29, 2005, Chris Ambidge enquired about a potential French eggcorn

as I recall, Cinderella’s unusual footwear comes from a mistake (possibly an eggcorn, but I leave the diagnosis to experts). The original tale, as told in French, has Cinderella’s slipper made of fur - “vair”. Someone misheard that and wrote that her slipper was “verre” - glass.

and asked for opinions on the subject. He also wondered about the concept of dancing in slippers. I replied the next day:

It doesn’t look like it; rather, this seems to be a case of erudition run wild. Balzac’s and Littré’s (a nineteenth-century man of letters, author of an important dictionary), to be precise. They stipulated the verre/vair confusion. But “pantouffles de verre” (though in various spellings) are in Perrault’s tale, and also in Catalan, Irish and Scottish versions. The Grimm brothers’ has golden slippers — not much better than glass, I’d think, to dance in all night. Wikipedia tells me that there are over 400 versions from all over the world, the oldest from China. (Disney used Perrault, by the way, so the glass slippers became a feature of the story most English-speaking children get to know best.)

As for “slippers”, the French “pantouffles” isn’t what you’d use to refer to dancing shoes either, nowadays. “Vair” is the fur of a grey squirrel, btw.

Will we clear this up to everyone’s satisfaction?

Lire Little Women

À la suite du billet précédent, quelques réflexions sur Little Women, le livre de Louisa May Alcott.

I just posted about how several French translations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women are wretchedly bowdlerised, pale reflections of the original, and that there is indeed an entire editorial history of a) removing all references to religion (the entire Pilgrim’s Progress dimension, the profession of the girls’ father, the Catholicism of the maid Estelle …), b) cutting down the wildness, queerness of Jo and c) generally pouring heaps of sugar into word choice and descriptions. (To attenuate this harsh judgement, at least two recent translations appear to be doing much better.)

It is likely that the German version I must have come across during my youth — I haunted forever the public library and the book stores — suffered from similar faults, because I had never actually read the book.#[1] But now I’ve rectified the omission, and want to write up a few impressions.

First of all, it’s really quite good. Certainly an enjoyable read, given how little attractive I find the bildungsroman genre#[2]. To be sure, there’s a fair bit of very protestant moralising of the type “every moral failure, however small, will bring the appropriate punishment in its wake”, and at times there’s just a little too much goodness all around. Still, the characters are psychologically complex, even the most faultless ones, the book’s dramatic at times, and I like Alcott’s humour.

A few points about how the author deploys English sprang to mind. There’s singular (undetermined) antecedent themselves:

Jo announced that the coffee was ready, and everyone settled themselves to a hearty meal; for youth is seldom dyspeptic, and exercise develops wholesome appetites.

The bunch of (mostly) adolescents for whom Jo is making coffee here consists of boys and girls, and the preceding passages have been dealing with the interaction between the girls, between the boys, and between boys and girls. The mixed-sex nature of the group is acutely before the reader’s mental eye. To claim that himself would be gender-neutral in this case would be rather preposterous.

There are three occurrences of wet-blanket, two of which as verbs:

‘I know Meg would wet-blanket such a proposal, but I thought you had more spirit,’ began Laurie, insinuatingly.
A few other topics of general interest were introduced by Mr. Brooke and wet-blanketed by Mrs. Brooke, and conversation languished.

Of course! The idiom comes from extinguishing fire with a wet blanket — I’d never thought of this before.

There’s also a sentence that looks like a mild case of Neal Whitman’s “FLOP coordination”:

[…] if he had not possessed a talisman against evil in the memory of the kind old man who was bound up in his success, the motherly friend who watched over him as if he were her son, and last, but not least by any means, the knowledge that four innocent girls loved, admired, and believed in him with all their hearts.

Amy, the youngest and vainest of the sisters, is frequently shown to produce malapropisms. In the beginning, this happens mostly when, out of desire to distinguish herself in front of her older sisters, she employs words that are too big for her and is duly laughed at by the straightforward Jo. But as the books (both volumes) progress, her stabs at elaborate vocabulary and, sometimes, French, becomes just a way to characterise her. In the following bit, the misinterpretation is attributed to the servant Hannah, but it’s Amy speaking, and in a way that’s typical for her:

“Why, Mother, how can you think of such a thing? Not more than six or eight will probably come, so I shall hire a beach wagon and borrow Mr. Laurence’s cherry-bounce.” (Hannah’s pronunciation of charabanc.)

The eggcorn is quite ingenious: You can just imagine Amy and her rich friends bouncing along under the cherry trees in a horse-dawn carriage. (Charabanc comes from the French char à banc(s), i.e. a coach or carriage equipped with benches. In contemporary French, char means tank, though in the Quebecois dialect, the word can also refer to a car.)

Last, just to cite a sentence I admired for its dramatic effect, a bit from the beginning of the second volume, in which Jo has just received a positive reply from a publisher who is prepared to accept her first novel, provided she shortens the text:

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre.

[1]: The German title is Betty und ihre Schwestern (”Betty and her Sisters”). Compare this with the French Les quatre filles du Docteur March (”Doctor March’s four daughters”). Titles tend to survive from the first translations, which, by modern standards, tend to leave much to be desired. They are, after all, what the book is know by. Still, strange choices. At least in French, a literal translation of the title would be entirely feasible without sounding odd. [2]: Embarrassing secret: I just can’t stand Goethe.

The usage of the verb snob

Le verbe snober vient du nom anglais snob, emprunté par le français. Mais il ne se dit pas snob en anglais — je parle toujours du verbe —, mais snub. Peu surprenant que certains anglophones s’y perdent. Et même plus que ça : on trouve une foule de formations verbales faites à partir de snob, toutes absentes des dictionnaires.

  • 2005-10-29
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When the sentence “He [Karl Marx] would probably snob his nose at it [blogging]” flickered by me on IRC some hours ago, I just thought that this was a nice blend of snob n., snub v. and the idiom turn up one’s nose at sth., possibly influenced by the semantically less pertinent snub-nosed. […]

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  • 2005-10-26
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[La version anglaise est plus complète.] The Eggcorn Database, notre collection de réinterpretations lexicales (le type d’erreurs que j’appelle poteaux roses en français), se dote d’un forum. Je ne m’attends pas à des foules, mais s’il y a de l’intérêt, on pourrait facilement ajouter un espace francophone…

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Sur Language Log, nous trouvons une introduction complète et intéressante à l’alphabet coréen hangeul (한글) par Bill Poser. En 1446, le roi Sejong le Grand demanda à un groupe de savants de créer un système d’écriture permettant à la population, largement analphabète, l’accès à l’écrit. Le coréen était alors rarement écrit : la langue utilisée […]

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Linguistics in Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close

Dans «Fleshmarket Close», le dernier tome paru de l’auteur de polars Ian Rankin, l’inspecteur Rebus visite un département de linguistique. Où il assiste, peu convaincu de leur utilité, à des recherches en phonétique.

  • 2005-09-20
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Ian Rankin is one of a small handful of mystery writers whose work I particularly enjoy. And since, let’s face it, I read faster than he can write new novels, I had postponed reading the latest one of his Detective Inspector John Rebus series, Fleshmarket Close. It’s as good as all the others — the plot […]

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Votre serviteuse regarde du cricket. Et ne comprend rien.

I’ve retreated down the pub, to relax after a long day. There’s a TV set running, showing something called “the Ashes”. And of course, me being a total cricket moron, I don’t understand a bit of what’s going on. In the beginning it looked like England was winning “that little urn”, with “three wickets left”, […]

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Non-eggcorn: “equilateral(ly)”

Une liste d’exemples du mot «equilateral», notamment sous sa forme adverbiale (que le français ne connaît pas, de ce que j’en sais), dans des contextes surprenants.

Ce n’est pas un poteau rose, pour autant.

My first sighting was in a report from a tech volunteer in the Astrodome in Houston, quoted on BoingBoing. There are plenty of issues that need to be discussed, but the evacuees are keeping the area very clean and equilaterally said they were happier to be in the Astrodome than stuck in the Superdome […]

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Les rennes en rose

Some eggcorns seem to transcend languages. Or rather, some idioms seem to undergo eggcornification in several languages at once. In English, scapegoat has been turned into escape goat and scrapegoat. As for the French equivalent, bouc émissaire has at least four eggcorn versions.

The extremely common eggcorn rein»reign has a French cousin, too. Except that in French, people don’t take the reigns, but the reindeers of power.

According to my estimate, prendre les rennes de … amounts to over 10% of the instances where standard French would have required rênes.

J’ai déjà fait allusion à cela : certaines locutions semblent plus enclines que d’autres à se laisser transformer en poteaux roses. Et le phénomène peut transcender les frontières linguistiques. Ainsi, le pauvre bouc émissaire pointe le nez déguisé en bouquet misère, bouquet mystère, bouc et misère, bouc et mystère et ainsi de suite. Mais son homologue […]

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