Did I hear you right? Many of the words and expressions which we hear may sound strange to us and we wonder “where did that expression come from?” Some of these quirky treasures are actually bastardized forms of another word or phrase that got distorted by being heard wrong and the substitution is an expression which has survived.
Telephone and eggcorn
An eggcorn, the term coined in 2003, is a name for a word or expression which people have created by changing something that they misheard. For example, “eardropping” has, in some cases, mistakenly been substituted for “eavesdropping”.
Now this is a simple substitution. But there are more deliberate and involved linguistic creations which came about for simplicity’s sake.
Why does this happen? Well let’s give the illustration of the game “telephone”. Let’s say you are in middle school. Let’s say you are at a party or better yet in a drama class. It is quite likely that you will end up playing “telephone”. Now for those of you who are not familiar with this game, I will explain. It’s not going on social media with your phone. It is not pretending to use an antique, dinosaur communication device of the 1980s and prior…(“how does this thing work??”) It is sitting in a circle with others, as one person whispers a phrase or sentence into the ear of the person next to them. This person then whispers what they hear to their neighbor and so on until the phrase has passed entirely around the circle. The last person says what they heard aloud. And of course 90% of the time it is completely garbled. However! It isn’t just gibberish which they say. No! Everyone wants to be right so they tweak the message with just enough sense to make it sound plausible. So, for example, “I like lots of ice cream.” becomes, “I eat chocolate ice cream.” And so the progression happens.
As these substitutions have occurred many times in our linguistic past, we have created new and colorful English expressions. One of my favorite stories of word substitutions is the origin of the word, gringo. A gringo is a Mexican slang word for a man from north of the Mexican border. The story goes that the homesick yankees, or American soldiers, during the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, would sing a favorite song based on a Robert Burns poem. The lyrics were:
Green grow the rashes, O
Green grow the rashes, O
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend
Are spent among the lasses, O.
The Mexican men who heard them singing the song thought that “green grow” sounded like “gringo” and thus this term for Americans was invented. You can’t beat this story for color and “scope for the imagination” as Anne with an E would say.
Hocus-pocus is the word which has been used to signal the transformation of one thing into another through magic, or slight of hand. The best explanation for the invention of this catchy phrase appears to be the corruption of Latin “Hoc est corpus” meaning “this is my body”, the words spoken by the priest when the bread is said to change into the body of Christ during the Catholic Mass. Obviously the Post-Reformation nonbelievers thought that the transformation was pure trickery and thus it became the catchword of the world of magic tricks. Magicians and entertaining tricksters, in days gone by, said it when making things disappear or appear, as in rabbits out of a hat.
According to Samuel Pepys, 17th century member of the British Parliament, the pub is the “heart of England.” Pub is short for public house. The Romans, who happened to be occupying Celtic England until about 410 A. D., began the custom of setting up shops along the Roman roads. A “taberna”, or shop, was the forerunner of the tavern or pub. Later, these establishments were actually set up by the English government to provide refreshment and lodging for travelers. In the Middle Ages, travelers on these now British roads would likely be on pilgrimage to a holy site and indeed some of the pubs or taverns had religious sounding names. The locals, however, had their own way with the formal sounding tavern names. God Encompasses Us over time turned into the popular tavern, Goat and Compasses. A favorite restaurant even in the U.S., The Pig and Whistle, is derived from the Norse name Piga Waes Hael, or “Hail to the Virgin”. (So the curiosity about that favorite childhood eatery with the goofy name, Pig and Whistle, has been personally satisfied in this knowledge.) Lastly, Bacchanals, the name being a reference to Bacchus, Greek god of wine, became Bag o’ Nails and La Infanta de Castilla, after the Spanish princess, morphed into The Elephant and Castle. The English locals, especially after a few cold ones, were very creative indeed.
Shipley, Joseph T., In Praise of English. Times Books, 1977