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I've Been Saying These Words Wrong My Whole Life

I'm guilty of gross mislexiconduct.

23/11/2017 4:15 PM AEDT | Updated 23/11/2017 4:15 PM AEDT
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"This seemed to be a popular trend in my butchering of idioms. I visualised the phrase in a way that made sense to me, but was totally incorrect."

I'm guilty of gross mislexiconduct. For years I've been saying 'full ball' instead of 'full bore'. I remember the first time I heard, or misheard, this expression. I was in the car with my Dad, Credence Clearwater came on the radio and he said, "Rach, I love this song. Turn it up full bore".

I'm pretty sure Dad said it correctly as he's a pretty big nerd when it comes to words. But I just remember looking at the radio dial, the spherical-shaped button which controlled the volume, and thinking that it looked a little like a ball. To me that made sense. I was using words which I was familiar with and creating a picture in my mind that worked.

When I was a bit older my boyfriend explained to me that I was saying the idiom incorrectly; well a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, rapidly retired for too many passive-aggressive quips about my vernacular. He told me 'bore' was a unit of measurement, to be at 'full bore' was to operate at maximum capacity. Of course, I Googled. He was right. And soon to be single.

I was determined to work out what else I was saying wrong. A lot, apparently. What was happening? I wasn't hard of hearing. Had glue in my ear. Glue ear? Whatever, you know what I mean. But I'd been unknowingly butchering the English language, which I so deeply revered.

A bit like how Vampire Weekend doesn't give a f**k about an Oxford Comma, maybe people don't really care if someone's turn of phrase is a little off.

I've thought about it a lot and I think it comes down to a couple of things. The words used in most of these sayings are passe and rarely appear outside of that particular expression or in everyday chat.

For example, 'champing at the bit' means you're keen to get started. 'Champing' is horse-specific, a noisy chewing action, and a 'bit' is the thing that goes in the horse's mouth to control it. So ol' horse boy is chewing on his bit impatiently, eager to get going. But how often would you say, "Look at that horse champing on the grass over there". Chomping seems more logical. Hence, I've been saying 'chomping at the bit' for most of my life.

Similarly, 'tenterhooks' were hooks people used to hang out washing on their 'tenters' back in the day. I never knew what a tenter was, in fact, it's even got a red squiggly spellcheck line under it now so maybe Microsoft doesn't either. We say pegs now, not tenters, so it's no wonder I mispronounced the age-old word and always thought it was, 'to be on tender hooks'.

I knew the meaning of the phrase, to be anxious or uneasy, anticipating something or hanging in suspense. But in my muddled mind 'tender hooks' made sense. Tender can mean painful, raw, sore, so I envisioned a person on a painful hook, desperately waiting for release. It's not dissimilar to the actual meaning of the phrase -- your feelings are figuratively stretched like a piece of washing on that tenter, that bloody tenter.

This seemed to be a popular trend in my butchering of idioms. I visualised the phrase in a way that made sense to me, but was totally incorrect.

'Deep-seated' became 'deep-seeded', because seeds are buried deep down in the soil, or found deep within an apple right at its core. But as author of 'Common Errors in English Language' Paul Brian explains, "tennis players may be seeded, but not feelings". Deep-seated actually refers to feelings "being seated firmly within one's breast" rather than deep within you.

'Spitting image' was always 'splitting image', as I imaged a photograph of a person being split in half revealing two exact mirror images, or a piece of wood being split in two in perfect symmetry. The actual origins of 'spitting image', according to Dean Koorey from the Australian Writers' Centre, "go all the way back to Greek mythology and Athena being 'spit from the mouth of Zeus'". By the 1850s it had evolved to be 'the spit and image of his father', which then finally became 'spitting image' in 1901. So the actual meaning is kind of gross and weird.

The spit fiasco above illustrates just how fluid the English language is. Words and sayings are ever-changing. Earlier this year, 'normcore' and 'humblebrag' were added to the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, and Urban Dictionary churns out more and more on fleek slang every day. So maybe replacing 'champing' with 'chomping' or 'tenter' with 'tender' isn't such a big deal -- a bit like how Vampire Weekend doesn't give a f**k about an Oxford Comma, maybe people don't really care if someone's turn of phrase is a little off.

It's all about context anyway. I've never let correcting a word get in the way of a good story, at least not a spoken story. Writing is a whole different kettle of fish and it only takes a moment to check the correct wording. But in conversation I'm not impressed by people who use twenty-dollar words when the ten-centers work just fine. For me, it's more important what people say than how they say it.

It's people like me who drive linguists up the wall. But maybe that's what has always happened. Maybe we've always needed a few renegades like me -- enthusiastically screaming the chorus of the Go-Go's '80s classic, 'Our Lips Are Sealed' as 'Alex The Seal' -- to keep English on tender hooks.

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