I don’t know if you lot have noticed, but I’m a bit of a nerd. Last year I went to my local library and borrowed The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth and enjoyed it so much I bought a copy and then read it again. It now resides on my desk in my “reference” section. So when I spotted The Etymologicon by Forsyth in a bookshop a month ago, I had to go back on payday and buy it.
The Etymologicon is, as the title suggests, about etymology. Forsyth examines the roots of common words and how they connect to one another, in a familiar and engaging style that wanders this way and that through Latin, French, German, Chinese, Greek and all the way back to Proto-Indoeuropean. He fills his account with snippets and quotes that delight and amuse, such as this from the chapter “Dick Snary”:
I do love a pun, and I am impressed that Forsyth has found such an old one. And what better than some word-play to illustrate the history of a book that lists words in a book about the origins of words? Wonderfully approriate!
If you are looking for depth, this isn’t the book for you, since Forsyth lingers only long enough to impart the important information, plus perhaps a tangent or two and and an amusing story, before moving on to the next word. The benefit of this approach is that you never get bored and you’re always learning something new; if you want to delve a little deeper into a word, there’s nothing to stop you heading over to Google or Wikipedia, or Forsyth’s key sources (provided at the end of the book), to find out more.
I rate The Etymologicon 9/10. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and heartily recommend it to anyone who’s a bit of a word nerd. It’s easy to dip in and out of too, so it would do nicely on a coffee table – or in the bathroom.
If there’s something I really hate, it’s when people on the internet are wrong.
Obviously this happens all the time and I don’t much care when they get it wrong in ways I wouldn’t notice, because who has time to look up every claim made when chances are the top comment will be a snooty correction by someone who does care?
No, what I care about is when people spell idioms and phrases incorrectly. Of course, I can’t correct them in the comments, because that looks petty and snooty. But in a blog post is a different matter: it’s not a direct response to anyone, and in any case my intent here is to educate and entertain, so even if you are getting these phrases right, you’ll still learning something interesting along the way.
So here are five phrases people get wrong on the internet:
Toe the line
Often misspelled “tow the line”, the origins of this phrase are disputed in the detail but not the effect: it comes from the need of a group of people to line up neatly, with their toes touching a line on the ground. Whether these individuals were school boys being inspected at roll-call, sailors in the Royal Navy lining up along the lines of the planks of the deck for inspection, or people in a foot race starting at the exact same starting line is disputed. In modern parlance, “toe the line” means to conform with specific standards, usually of behaviour or productivity.
The phrase has nothing to do with hauling upon a rope, though the Royal Navy sailors of the 18th century who might toe the line would be plenty of that too!
Lo and behold
“Lo and behold” is used to express a turn of events or situation which might have been predicted or considered predictable. When I hear it used, it’s usually to emphasise the speaker’s foresight and the lack of wisdom of their subject, as in “I told him if he let her eat sweets she wouldn’t want her dinner, and lo and behold, five o’clock comes round and she’s throwing her spoon on the floor.” It’s also used when there is a surprising coincidence: “I met a lovely lady while I was on holiday in Cyprus, we really got on, and lo and behold, she lives only a mile away from me!”
It’s an odd one, this phrase, because “lo” is a very uncommon word used only in this idiom and a few archaic and Biblical contexts. It is commonly misspelled “low”, a far more common word which is pronounced identically. “Lo” here is a shortening of “look”, but with a more exclamatory tone; literally the phrase would be equivalent to “look and see”. Being fairly informal, it’s easy to see why it is so commonly misspelled: it’s spoken far more often than it’s written.
With bated breath
As with “lo”, “bated” isn’t a common word outside this idiom. It is an abbreviated form of “abated”, which means reduced or lessened. So “with bated breath” could be interpreted as holding your breath – which you might be doing as you eagerly await to hear news of something, which is the idiomatic meaning: “eagerly, with great anticipation”, according to Wiktionary. The first recorded use of the phrase, like thousands of others, is in Shakespeare, who used it in The Merchant of Venice. And while perhaps we shouldn’t be taking spelling lessons from a man who spelled his own name in several different ways, that spelling has indeed stuck, in parallel to the word it abbreviates.
The homonym “baited” is the incorrect alternative – and it crops up even in published books like Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, according to The Phrase Finder. But how can you bait breath? And what are you attempting to catch with that bait? It makes much more sense when spelled correctly, once you understand the root.
The alternative (incorrect) spelling of this phrase, “free reign”, appears in 46% of uses of this phrase, so it’s a very common error (according to Jeremy Butterfield in the Oxford A-Z of English Usage). The image it conjures up is persuasive, as if a king or queen can act as they wish, though in that case they wouldn’t need a free reign at all, only a reign. The actual origins come from horse riding, where the rider slackens the reins and allows the horse to choose where to go and at what speed. This makes more sense considering the meaning: someone is given the freedom to make decisions where they might not usually, such as a junior team member having free rein over a project, where normally their manager directs their work.
For all intents and purposes
I end with a phrase that is both commonly misspelled and commonly corrected, so hopefully you’re getting this one right anyway. It means “in the practical sense” or “in respect to what is important”. It may be used in contrast to what is technically the case but not viable: “While producing this part itself isn’t banned, importing one of the raw materials is illegal, so for all intents and purposes it is impossible.”
The origins of this are even older than Shakespeare (though not by much): in an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII in 1546, the phrase was used as “to all intents, constructions and purposes”.
The incorrect construction, “for all intensive purposes”, is pretty old too: The Phrase Finder quotes The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette from 1870, where a political figure is described as follows: “to all intensive purposes, politically speaking, he might as well have been dead.”
What misspelled phrases and idioms do you notice people getting wrong a lot? Which phrases have etymologies that are particularly interesting or obscure?