Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

One of my favorite expressions (stolen from House MD many years back) is “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not Zebras”. The general idea here is that if you see something, and you’re not sure what it is, don’t anticipate something odd or rare when there’s a more common explanation. Well, I was reminded of that this afternoon when I stumbled upon this quote in a forum I frequent:

“Without further a due, you can get the latest nightly builds at [address]”

This is a form of phonological re-analysis. When we re-analyze a word or phrase, we’re usually replacing an uncommon or non-transparent word with something that’s phonologically similar (that sounds alike), but is much more common or makes more sense. These are also referred to as “eggcorns”, a term coined by Geoff Pullum.

So, the speaker stumbles with “Ado” is a Middle English word, according the New Oxford American Dictionary, “from northern Middle English at do ‘to do,’ from Old Norse at (used to mark an infinitive) and do”). Rather than using “further ado”, the speaker (typer?) replaces it with a phonologically identical pair of words (“ado” /ədu/ “a dye” /ə du/) which are much more common in the English language. In short, the speaker replaces the word “ado”, a certified Zebra, with a common set of English words, “a due”, and thus, thinks horses.

A whole herd of Zebras, all horsed

We really like, as speakers of language, to turn zerbras into This happens relatively frequently, with varying degrees of phonological similarity. I’ve seen “do process” for “due process” (homophones like above), “play it by year” instead of “play it by ear” (/plej ɪt baj iɹ/ vs. /plej ɪt baj jiɹ/), where word segmentation makes the difference. Google gives 216 hits for “Torn ass under”, a (creative!) re-analysis of “torn asunder” (/tɔɹn əsʌndəɹ/ vs the original /tɔɹn æs ʔʌndəɹ/) to get around the ambiguity of “asunder”, meaning “into various pieces”. Entertainingly, this same “sunder” root causes yet another Zebra reanalysis. Not infrequently, you’ll hear people talking about “various insundry goods” in case of “Various and Sundry Goods” (/vɛɹiəs ɪnsʌndɹi ɡʊds/ vs. /vɛɹiəs ən sʌndɹi ɡʊds/). “Sundry” is definitely a zebra if you’re not familiar with “sundries”, items of various kinds, although interestingly, here, it’s replaced with another zebra, “insundry”.

With a bit more phonological difference, we get the reanalysis that many love to hate: “all intensive purposes” can be swapped for “all intents and purposes” (/ɑl ɪntɛnsɪv pəɹpəsɪz/ vs. /ɑl ɪntɛns ən pəɹpəsɪz/). And if we do this at a whole-phrase level while listening to music, we can get Mondegreens, a term for misheard song lyrics (hearing Jimi Hendrix’ “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”).

So, this is a relatively common phenomenon, and gives us great information about how speakers are coping with the amount of homophony in our language. In closing, thanks for reading Lingua Stick Miss Tick, and more importantly, thanks for not spelling it that way.

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