In a recent comment thread on my favourite tech blog, Gizmodo, a very earnest poster accomplished some quite excellent self-embarrassment by incorrectly correcting an already-correct use of the phrase “at your beck and call.” Here’s that correction:
Just for the record, the phrase is “Beckon Call” not “Beck and Call”. I hear this all the time, used by people who just don’t pay attention to what they’re saying. Have you ever “Becked” anyone? Probably not, but you can “Beckon” someone, especially if you use a “Beckoning Call”.
And now you know!
I found this great, partially for the high-toned superiority of it, but also for the imagined etymology. It got me thinking about how we all make this kind of mistake now and then. Or at least I think we do. Maybe, I thought, it’s just me and that errant commenter. When I was in grade twelve, I tried to impress my favourite English teacher (and I had a lot of really good ones, so that’s high praise) with my use of the term “epitome.” Only I thought the word had only three syllables, the “o” being made long by the silent “e.” In my head, I assumed it had something to do with “epi” (the prefix that means above or after) and “tome” (the archaic word for book). Something was the epitome, the best example of a certain class of objects, because it came “after the book”, thus following an already set-out definition.
My teacher, looking embarrassed for me, corrected my pronunciation and quickly moved on.
I was mortified.
I have since realized that this is the curse of those of us who read more than we socially interact; we see words written and attempt to apply the conventions we know to figure out their pronunciations. Sometimes we get it wrong, and don’t find out our mistakes for years. Here’s another one of mine: I thought when you came to an “etc.” in a text, you were supposed to pronounce each letter. I knew it meant et cetera, but I thought the proper thing to do was to say “ee-tee-cee.” Add that to my list of high school embarrassments.
Curious as to who else might have similar stories, I asked for volunteers on the same Gizmodo comment thread. The result was a lot of fun. Doctor-Sinister had a friend who habitally made the same “epitome” mistake as I did. Then Darkly came up with this invented etymology:
It stems from the old fashioned days when people regularly used vinyl records. It’s ‘EP’ as in an Extended Play vinyl record ‘It’ as a vague word for something. ‘O’ as in the shortened version of or and ‘Me’ as in Me not you. The original meaning was for if you’d brought a Billy Ray Cyrus record home, a Bros record or something of that ilk. You’re other half would then shout that EP… IT… O… ME. It’s kind of like a threat…. probably 😉
That one inspired IceMetalPunk to contribute this:
I used to think “ambiguous” was three syllables–“am-BIG-wiss”. And I knew about the word “ambiguity”, but I thought it was just pronounced differently with a suffix. I always got annoyed when people pronounced it “am-BIG-you-uss”, until one day when I realized that was the correct pronunciation xD .
And to try my hand at the etymology of “ambiguous”, in the fifteenth century bullies were just as common as they are today. One kid was being picked on, and the bully told him, “There’s someone here who wants to kill you.” The kid told him he wasn’t being clear. Angered, he answered, “I…am big you wuss.” Clearly, the victim wasn’t paying much attention, because he thought the kid had said, “I ambiguous”. And thus a new word was formed.
Then awf78 chimed in:
mishapen. I’ve always read this as “mishappen” as in someone that has a lot of mishaps. (Which is probably why they were mishapen). So it always made sense in context…but I guess I was not getting the full meaning there.
and, of course, facade. I knew the word facade as I heard it used in speech, and knew they meant the same thing, but for some reason thought the spoken one was spelled something like “physad.” Never made the connection until reading aloud in high school in front of a group of 30 peers.
There were more. VeeKaChu was once accused of being a “suede-oh” intellectual. Dynastius went through puberty very nearly pronouncing “capacity” as “cap-city” and would now like to visit there since it must be the place “where everyone wears caps.” Gerrylum thought the phrase was “cultive personality” which made sense “because those guys could cultivate all sorts of things with their personality.”
This all reminded me of the student of mine some years ago who sincerely thought self-esteem was “self-of-steam.” It made sense to him: we have two selves, the solid self-of-flesh and the more delicate “self-of-steam” that can so easily be blown away by insults and negative experiences. Kind of poetic when you see it that way.
So why all this detail? I think we need a new term: the beckon call. It’s sort of like a spoken (as opposed to sung) mondegreen, since in my mind, mondegreens are always in songs. I would define a beckon call in two ways:
- A moment when a speaker uses a word aloud for the first time and mispronounces it, such mispronunciation coming from an imagined etymology that made total sense inside the speaker’s head, but none once articulated. Often, but not always, the mark of a “suede-oh” intellectual.
- An incorrect correction of someone else’s usage based on one’s own beckon-call. This is also called a “beckon-calling-out.” Almost always the work of “suede-oh” intellectuals.
So, anyone want to publicly embarrass themselves? Come on, give me your beckon calls. Alternatively, you could always correct any of my usage in this post. If you do, though, just remember Muphry’s Law.
UPDATE: Commenter StephenM3 below notes that there is already a term for usage #1, the eggcorn, and I like it. That site has lots of good ones. So I’ll withdraw that. However, beckon-calling-out, when you incorrectly correct someone who is already correct, is still on the table. Can someone find a reason to tell Dan Savage about it?