Cephalogenic

or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

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Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Deep Thinking

The evolution of a certain kind of folk etymology:

Stage one: an idiom arises from a commonly understood word.

Stage two: due to a quirk in the pronunciation of English, one of the words in that idiom sounds like another word, and people become unsure as to which spelling is the intended one.

Stage three: because more and more people get their information through their ears instead of their eyes, people come to believe that the second, wrong, word is in fact the correct one, and invent some spurious etymology to bolster their point.

It happened with "rein". The expression "free rein" means that you can go anywhere and do anything because your reins--that is to say, the lines that control a horse's movements--have been relaxed. Those unaccustomed to the spelling thought that the expression must be "free reign", and decided that it means you have sovereignty over your actions, which, though wrong, is at least mildly plausible, an essential ingredient in the folk etymology. (This in turn led to the expression "reign in", correctly "rein in", which makes perfect sense, unlike the folk version, which is indefensible no matter how hard you try.)

All this came to mind because in the letters section of a Salon.com article today, a letter-writer used the expression "deep-seeded", which is not only wrong but strange: "deep-seated" is correct.

And yet if you Google "'deep-seated' 'deep-seeded'" (put quotes around each expression so the search engine forces the use of the hyphens), you will find that a great many people think the opposite. "I always thought it was 'deep-seeded', but I saw 'deep-seated' in print!"

Nope. It's the verb "to seat" that's throwing people off, I think. To be seated on something means to be sitting there, true enough; but another sense of the word, exemplified in the phrasal verb "seated in", means "to be situated inside", as demonstrated by this randomly discovered passage:

Blood vessels are located on the surface of the brain and deeply seated in its tissues.

"Deep-seeded" emerged as a spelling because when we're speaking quickly, a "-t-" turns into a "-d-" before the suffix "-ed"--the perfect illustration of sandhi, which I discussed yesterday. The folk etymology for "deep-seeded" is, of course, that something has been buried, there to germinate. But it's wrong. The expression always was "deep-seated", and it still is, if you want to write correctly.

2 Comments:

Blogger Bright Beak said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Bright Beak said...

I've found that many homonyms suffer the mistaken version fate. In the fanfiction stuff that I frequent, and among the betas I know, the thing we find most problematic is the use of one where the other (less common) version is actually the correct word. It abruptly removes me from the reading, and often results in an e-mail pointing out the error (and those letters ARE polite, but rarely received so).
Another area that has started to creep into fandom writings is the misuse of near-alike's. Words like quite and quiet being used in each others' places - a mistake that still confounds me, as I cannot understand HOW someone can mistake either for being the other.
As much as I may have trouble with pronounciation, and certainly am not an expert in writing correctly according to proper grammatical standards, as a reader there are a few things I find more disruptive than the incorrect use of words. The incorrect use of various grammatical constructions, like parallelism, item list punctuation, and subject/verb agreement, cause me to jolt out of my suspension of disbelief, and thrust me rather abruptly back to the here-and-now. It also makes me wonder if too many writers rely upon Microsoft Word's spell and grammar checking services, and not a human with a facility in English. My ability to beta for someone has come in as a valuable service that a few friends utilize whanever possible. Maybe the other writers do not have a friend who is able to do the same?

bb - babbling ;)

Thursday, November 16, 2006 12:47:00 PM  

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