on eggcorns, affectionate, patient, and otherwise.

writing teachers have long made jokes — some friendly and forgiving, others cutting and coarse — about students’ misuse of language. my favorite description of this kind of neologism — an “eggcorn” —  comes from the brilliant short story “what you know” by peter ho davies:

     “People all of a sudden want to know all about my students, what they’re like.  What do I know? I want to say. I’m just a writer, a writer-in-the-schools. All I see is their writing.

     So what are they like as writers?

     They’re shocking. Appalling, in fact. Indescribably awful (and when a writer, even one of my low self-esteem, says that, you know it’s serious.) The good ones are bad, and the bad ones are tragic.

     [….] What really redeems it are the laughs.  The moose frozen like a dear in the headlinghts. The cop slapping on the cuff links. The viscous criminal. The escape goat.

     It’s as if they’re hard of hearing, snatching up half-heard, half-comprehended phrases, trusting blindly in their spell checkers to save them. (Think! Think who designs spell checkers for a moment. Were these people ever good spellers?)

     I once had a heated argument with one student about the death knoll.

     “Knell,” I said.

     “Knoll,” he insisted with vehemence, until finally we determined that he was thinking of the grassy knoll. My way might be right, he conceded grudgingly, but his way made more sense. We took a vote in class (they love democracy) and the majority agreed. And perhaps this is the way that language, meaning, evolves before our very eyes and ears. “It’s the death mole of literacy,” I told them, but they didn’t get it.

     ….So that, if you really want to know, is what my students are like.”

my eggcorn for the week: one of my students just told me that “exploiting the instinctive response to the outsider has been the sock and trade of warmongers throughout history.”

now, i appreciate the laugh. and i prefer, in my teacherly reply, to err on the side of generous rather than snarky.  god knows i should cut the student some slack, having made more than my share of verblunders over the years. so where do i start with this? with the impossible untruth of just about anything to have been categorically true throughout all of history? (which history? whose history?) with the overly-grand generalization about humans’ instinctive responses, as if such things were ever possibly, simply true, a concept not to be contested? or is it best to simply reflect on the image of warmongers — aggressive, probably exhausted, possibly blooded by battle — to pull of their socks and trade them in for nasty ole’ outsiders?

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