in the private eye

Ann Beattie, in an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday this morning, about her recent book on Pat Nixon:

… in the way I might go about revealing somebody who was very much in the private eye but who didn’t want to be there at all …

Of course she meant “in the public eye”. A nice error in word retrieval, based on the semantic opposition of public and private, and probably facilitated by Beattie’s thinking of Mrs. Nixon as a very private person. (And possibly encouraged by the fixed expression private eye ‘detective’.)

(The sentence is not in the transcript on the program’s website.)

People do sometimes retrieve the opposite word to the one they were aiming for. More often, semantic errors involve retrieval of a word that’s merely in the same semantic domain as the intended word. And the error often has a phonological component to it as well, as in this case, where public and private are prosodically similar (both are disyllables accented on the first syllable) and both begin with /p/.

Two more recent cases, both from people ordering meals at the Gordon Biersch restaurant near my house:

(1) 8/14/11: Customer intended to order bowtie pasta but instead asked for rainbow pasta: bowtie and rainbow are both types of pasta; both are disyllabic compounds with first-syllable accent; and they share the element bow. (The customer caught the error and corrected himself.)

(2) 10/11/11: Customer said, “I’d like the hummus and goat cheese sandwich”, but intended to order a salad, not a sandwich: salads and sandwiches are parallel menu items; both words are disyllables with first syllable accent; and both begin with /s/. (Neither the customer nor the server caught the error. The server mentally corrected the order to “hummus and goat cheese salad”, there being no sandwich of the sort on the menu.)

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