Susie Dent: How our slips of the tongue help the English language evolve

When it comes to language, it's always been a doggy-dog world

For a linguist, eavesdropping is a necessary art. The lexicographical kind is not quite as mischievous as the word’s beginnings suggest – to eavesdrop was once to stand beneath the “eavesdrip” of a house, the ground onto which water would drip from the eaves, and tune in to a neighbour’s conversation.

In our case it’s not gossip we’re hoping for: what interests us is any new piece of slang, any surprising use of an existing word, or evidence of a new one bubbling under, waiting to break through the surface.

And it doesn’t end there, for lexicographers will also gleefully jump upon any slip of the tongue. Not, as many might assume, in order to issue stringent usage notes in our dictionaries: instead, we use such steps off the beaten path to chart the evolution of language, which so often changes by mistake.

One of the most famous categories of mistake, which I have been charting for i for a while, is known as an “eggcorn”: a term suggested by the US linguist Geoffrey Pullum for a certain type of linguistic error. The name is a nod to a regular mishearing (recorded since the 19th century) of “acorn” – and it’s one that makes total sense, for acorns do look a little like little eggs sitting on nature’s eggcups.

In fact, that’s the thing about these slip-ups: they tend to have a kind of internal logic that seduces the brain and allows us to assume that our version is the truth. Have you ever, for example, described a rambunctious individual as behaving like a “bowl in a china shop”? How a bowl can replicate the fury of a bull is unclear, but china and bowls do go together and so we blithely ignore that minor quibble and move on. Let’s not linger on chickens coming home to roast.

Often these mistakes arise because the original reference point is now lost. Blacksmiths are no longer firmly on our radar, which means going at something “hammer and tongs”, as though showering blows on a piece of iron with tongs hot from the fire, holds little significance to us today. Instead, some of us are sexing things up by going at it “hammer and thongs” instead.

Similarly, many of us are now happily describing ourselves as being on “tenderhooks”, because the standard version, “tenterhooks”, means nothing. To those in a cloth-manufacturing district, however, it would make perfect sense. Tenters are the frameworks on which wet wool is stretched taut for drying. They would be set up row upon row in the open air: the metaphor rests on the idea that we are in a similar state of suspense. Yet today’s “tenderhooks” has its own plausibility – it’s as though we are so tense that we are tiptoeing carefully to avoid potential pain.

Many recent examples can be hilarious. One disgruntled member of a school WhatsApp group liked to moan that a certain pupil was “such a pre-Madonna”, as though anyone around before the release of “Lucky Star” was bound to be a diva. Then there are those who decide to “cut their nose off despite their face”, or who occasionally have to “curl up in the feeble position” when life gets too hard.

Many a tweenager now likes to tell their parents they “can’t be asked” as far as tidying their room is concerned. Depending on your point of view, that is either “the lesser of two equals”, or proof that we are all “going to hell in a handbag”.

Whatever your view on such digressions, it’s important to note that they don’t represent the demise (or “death nail”, as some might have it) of English. There are dozens of examples of similar mistakes from centuries ago, ones now so enshrined in our language that their histories are invisible. The English tongue struggled mightily with the word “asparagus”, for example, and so dubbed it “sparrowgrass” instead – in the same way as the “avocado” masqueraded as the “alligator pear” for a while.

It’s not just eggcorns either – we should by rights be “fneezing” rather than “sneezing”, but someone in the 15th century mistook the “f” for the old-style “s” and used that instead (how much more evocative of a blocked nose is the original?). And many of us are aware that “napron”, “nadder”, “noumpiere” and “narenj” were the original incarnations of “apron”, “adder”, “umpire”, and “orange”, before the “n” decided to wander off and join the “a” preceding them instead.

In some cases, rather wonderfully, we are returning by mistake to the original, “correct” version. We might laugh at those who extol the usefulness of “duck tape”, but that was the earliest version before “duct” came along, in which “duck” (from the Dutch doeck) was a word strong, untwilled linen.

Indeed, when it comes to language, which is as hostage to fashion as the clothes we wear, it’s always been a doggy-dog world. And to insist that there was once a golden age when mistakes never happened – well, let’s just say that all the evidence shows this theory just doesn’t pass mustard.

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in Dictionary Corner on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts with Gyles Brandreth the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple

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