Word errors

From Kristin Bergen on Facebook:

a wonderful eggcorn from a FB teaching discussion group: a colleague reports a senior seminar paper in which the student describes something happening “right from the gecko”

A delightful error (evoking an entertaining image), and surely a type of classical malapropism (CM) — a type I’ll label a Ruthie (after the character of that name in the comic strip One Big Happy) — but not an instance of the subtype of CM known in the error literature as an eggcorn, though to be fair to Kristin it’s significantly similar to eggcorns.

The student, confronted with the word get-go in the idiom from the get-go ‘from the very beginning’ and apparently not being familiar with this (relatively rare) item, has taken it to be, instead, the word gecko — which you might think is equally rare, but in fact is now familiar in the media thanks to the endless tv ads for GEICO insurance, with its cute gecko mascot (note language play on GEICO /’gajko/ and gecko /’gɛko/).

On the lizard, from Wikipedia:

Geckos are lizards belonging to the infraorder Gekkota, found in warm climates throughout the world. They range from 1.6 to 60 cm…

Geckos are unique among lizards in their vocalizations. They use chirping sounds in social interactions with other geckos. They are the most species-rich group of lizards, with about 1,500 different species worldwide. The New Latin gekko and English “gecko” stem from the Indonesian-Malay gēkoq, which is imitative of the sound the animals make.

And on the insurance company and its mascot, again from Wikipedia:

The Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO …) is an auto insurance company. It is the second largest auto insurer in the United States. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway that as of 2007 provided coverage for more than 13 million motor vehicles owned by more than 12 million policy holders. GEICO writes private passenger automobile insurance in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. GEICO uses a direct-to-consumer sales model. Its mascot is a gold dust day gecko with a Cockney accent, voiced by English comedian and actor Jake Wood.

On get-go, from NOAD2:

get-go (also git-go) noun the very beginning: Lawrence knew from the get-go that he could count on me to tell him the truth.

And from OED3 (June 2005), with verb get + verb go as its (not very illuminating) etymology:

U.S. colloq. (orig. in African-American usage). The outset; the very beginning. Chiefly in from the get-go. [first cite 1962]

For “chiefly”, understand “almost without exception”. Indeed, the word get-go is so rare in any other use that I treated it as an “almost lost word” in this posting on the subject. (Side note: caught in a Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode recently, the clipped version from the get.)

Types of word errors. I’ll use word here to refer to an association of  a meaning (for instance, reference to a nut of an oak tree) with a pronunciation (say, /’eˌkorn/) and a spelling (say, ACORN). There are standard associations here, with some dialectal variation — and then there are erroneous associations, of an enormous numbers of types, arising in a great many ways. The literature on errors attempts to categorize these in a useful way and to provide labels for the types.

In the classic eggcorn, the pronunciation and spelling are both unitary, but some speakers treat them as composed of meaningful parts (/’eg + ˌkorn/, EGG + CORN) in such a way that this analysis makes some sense as a carrier of the meaning: acorns have some of the perceptible properties of eggs and of corn. The analysis is a reanalysis favoring greater semantic transparency. (Note: the etymology of the original is irrelevant in this analysis: ordinary speakers do not know etymologies, nor should they be expected to.)

(In some eggcorns, the reanalysis can be directly observed only in the spelling. In other cases, there is a reanalysis into parts, but without the effect of greater semantic transparency; I’ve called these demi-eggcorns.)

Using the label eggcorn points to what is in fact an origin story: at some point, someone made the reanalysis. But the new form then can spread in the usual ways, so that later users are not performing a reanalysis, but merely using what they take to be the right form, or at least an alternative form. (Compare the label acronym for words like radar: they originated in alphabetic abbreviations of a particular type, but quickly became simply new words of the language.)

Then there’s the complexity that what might be an eggcorn can arise in entirely different ways from the one in the story above. ex(-)patriot for expatriate is often cited as an eggcorn, and indeed it probably originated as one for some speakers. But it also turns up as a kind of simple spelling confusion, as in a local newspaper story in which the writer quoted from an interview source who said expatriate, but transcribed it as ex-patriot.

Back to from the gecko. It should be clear from this discussion that this example is simply not an eggcorn. But it’s related: the mechanism in question would seem to be a kind of reanalysis, interpreting what you hear (if it involves a word or other expression that’s unfamiliar to you, or at least is rare in your experience) as something more familiar. get-go is (for many speakers) rare, but gecko is (again for many speakers) familiar; the two words are phonologically very similar, so it makes sense to re-work the first as the second.

This is what the character Ruthie (a child) in the comic strip One Big Happy does all the time. Two examples: in a 8/29/14 posting, Ruthie coped with the very rare verb eschew by understanding it as the verb achoo; and in #2 in a 10/22/14 posting, she re-worked odalisque as odorless. Not eggcorns, but springing from the same motive as eggcorns, trying to make sense of what you hear.

In honor of Ruthie, I’ll call this sort of word error a Ruthie.

When I used to write on errors on ADS-L, I frequently tried to distinguish the various types (in particular, to distinguish eggcorns from other types of word errors), to the great unhappiness of a number of posters, who objected that eggcorn was a word like any other: language changes over time, and (as linguists point out again and again) current usage is the key to the state of the language, so that if lots of people have come to use eggcorn to refer to all manner of word errors (as, apparently, they have), well, then, that’s what it means, and it’s hypocritical for linguists to maintain otherwise and to insist of their terminology.

(A very similar story has played out over the years on linguists’ use of passive construction in a very specific way, against the much broader usage of passive of many people; see Geoff Pullum’s frequent complaints on the matter, for instance here.)

But usage is a matter of context, and in the context of discussions about the technical matters of linguistics (including syntactic theory and error analysis), the usage of the experts holds sway. The experts do the analysis that picks out the concepts that need discussion, and they provide labels for these concepts. (Yes, they can disagree on both points, but those discussions are internal to this context.) If you want to talk about the technical matters of linguistics, you’re obliged to do so within their conceptual and terminological frameworks.

But I’ve given up on this position in ADS-L, where I will no longer post about eggcorns. Lots of people love the term eggcorn — it’s cute and it’s memorable — and they want it to be an all-purpose synonym for word error. If that’s what they want, I can’t stop them. But then they’re just not talking about linguistics, and I will have no part of it.

5 Responses to “Word errors”

  1. Gary Says:

    I’m surprised that you don’t consider the possibility that it’s a Capistrano—a misspelling of get-go caused the word processor spell checker to suggest gecko, and the student on an all-nighter didn’t catch it.

  2. mikepope Says:

    Gary, do you mean a Cupertino? Or is that a different thing?

  3. Gary Says:

    Yeah—I made a Cupertino of my own. Isn’t there some internet law about making errors when commenting on errors?

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