An idiom by definition is idiosyncratic - it conveys a meaning that is not always obvious or predictable from its construction. No wonder then, people tend to mangle and modify old fashioned idioms containing quaint expressions and words of foreign or antique origin to suit their own understanding of the language. A bit of logic too enters the modification according to our perceptions of the world around us. For example:
- Damp Squib (squib = an obscure name for a small explosive device) sometimes becomes Damp Squid for obvious reasons
- Vocal Cords (cord = thin rope or cable) is changed to Vocal Chords associated with sound (but why does the misspelling also extend to the spinal cord which is not involved with tonal function?)
- Fount (a gushing source) of Knowledge appears more impressive to some as the Font (receptacle) of Knowledge.
- Chaise Longue (pronounced shayz longg, meaning long chair in French) is languidly called the Chaise Lounge, the latter associated with relaxation.
- Just Deserts (from deservir in French meaning deserve) may have transformed to Just Desserts due to simple misspelling.
I often misspell the word "deceit" as "deceipt." Its correlation to "deception" in meaning and the phonetic similarity to "receipt," leads to this frequent error. My sister's housekeeper in India who doesn't speak English, refers to a cell phone as a "celephone." Serving the same utility, the newer technology is clearly linked in her mind to its traditional land line cousin not just in its purpose but also in a rhyming name. Associative linguistic changes and shifting idioms such as those above have been collectively termed eggcorns in honor of someone misspelling the word "acorn" as "eggcorn" (after all, acorns do look like large egg shaped corns). Spellings of individual words too become altered when we misread the origin of the word. The word minuscule meaning very small, derives its roots from minus. The alternate (but erroneous) spelling miniscule is becoming increasingly common because many now trace the word to mini. For more on eggcornucopia and the frequency of the usage of eggcorns as compared to the original phraseology, see here. (link via 3 QD)
There are other words and expressions, not quite eggcorns, that I have occasionally wondered about. For example, some words exist only in their negative connotation with no corresponding positive term in common usage. A "ruthless" person, we know is particularly unkind. Yet for the merciful among us, we don't describe them as possessing veins which are overflowing with the milk of human "ruth." Similarly "uncouth." We know who they are - the boorish, coarse and the unmannered types. But we never compliment someone's gracious behavior as being suitably "couth."
Two expressions, both slightly sarcastic in their usage, that always confound me just a hair are "over educated" and "same difference." Exactly how educated does one have to be before being disqualified as unsuitable for a particular job or social acceptance? And why say "same" when one means "no?"
Also interesting is how a Hobson's Choice can also be a Hobbesian one. No eggcorn here but a logical extrapolation of the idiom leading to philosopher Thomas Hobbes who coined a famous and specific Hobson's Choice - a choice between two options so unequal in their value ("your money or your life") that it is not a choice at all.
(Crossposted at Accidental Blogger)