An article came across my desk this week that had “changed the playing field” in its subtitle. That itched at me, but it took a while to figure out what was wrong with it. I Googled the phrase and found that it’s in use, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right — at least not yet. (William Safire is famous for saying that “Norma Loquendi” is the ultimate authority on matters of language.)
No, the idiom is “leveled the playing field.” So where did “changed the playing field” come from? I thought about it for a while and figured out that “leveled the playing field” had mated with “changed the rules of the game.”
Other examples of such mash-ups?
“Back to ground zero.” A chilling unconscious merger of the innocuous “back to square one” with the point of impact of a nuclear weapon. A real atomic-age mutant, this one. Should we call it a Szilardian slip? An Oopsenheimer?
“Jerry-rigged.” I’ve used this one myself, but then I read that it’s the illegitimate offspring of “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built.”
More examples as they occur to me — or you.
UPDATE: Althouse quotes Charles Grassley, saying “Judge Sotomayor’s very lukewarm answer that she gave me left me with the same pit in my stomach I had as a result of my vote for Souter.” “A pit in my stomach” isn’t a mash-up with the words and meaning of another idiom, it’s a mash-up with the form of another idiom — a mistaken structural analogy, my wild guess is to “a lump in my throat.”
Word freaks can now start salivating over the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, in the works since 1965 and due for publication this coming fall. It includes not only modern and cutting-edge English, but all those delicious historical layers we alluded to recently:
With 800,000 meanings for 600,000 words organised into more than 230,000 categories and subcategories, the thesaurus is twice the size of Roget’s version.
It contains almost the entire vocabulary of English, from Old English to the present day, giving a unique insight into the development of the language. …
The thesaurus is divided into three major sections: the external, mental and social worlds.
The 354 categories cover subjects including leisure, authority, education, faith, armed hostility, philosophy, mental capacity, aesthetics, sleeping and waking, matter, the supernatural and relative properties.
Read the story, it’s quite a cliffhanger. Back before computers when its evolving contents were scribbled down on slips of paper, the project survived a catastrophic fire because it was stashed in metal file cabinets. It’s outlived several of its contributors and survived decades of funding and labor shortages, and just when they thought it was done, around 1980, they decided to open it up again to include new words like “speed-dating.” There went another thirty years. A sublimely obsessive project that required as much perseverance as the Hubble Space Telescope. I don’t know about you, but I want one!
That famous koan of Yogi Berra’s? That’s how “grammatical ambiguity” makes me feel.
Grammatical ambiguity is my own private term (unless of course I saw it somewhere and unconsciously stole it) for when you know perfectly well what a sentence means, but the grammar shunts you off in two possible directions simultaneously. One is absurd and quickly ruled out, but you have to do a microsecond’s extra work in reading the sentence, and it’s unsettling, like slipping on a cake of soap and losing your balance for an instant, or having your two ice skates go their separate ways. (I told you grammar is physical to me.)
Here’s an example I just came across, unfortunately not the most flagrant or funniest one:
Researchers in England have shown that those cells let pollinating insects get a grip on unsteady flowers while they extract nectar and pollen.
When you first hit “they,” didn’t you think it was going to be something about the flowers, like “while they sway in the breeze”? And then you had to revise your expectation and change direction, turning on a dime. This may have happened so fast you weren’t aware of it, but it gives you that slight, subliminal feeling of instability, like walking on slippery ice.
This was how I suggested revising it:
Researchers in England have shown that those cells let pollinating insects get a grip on unsteady flowers while extracting nectar and pollen.
Not a perfect solution; I don’t like having two “-ing” words in such close proximity. May work on it some more. But anyway, I’ll add more examples of the genre to this post as I find them.
You people are getting me going.
Relating the spelling of “devastate” to its etymology in the comments on the last post — “vast” is in there, and is related to “waste,” as in “a desolate waste(land),” so “to devastate” is “to lay waste” — reminds me of reading this proposal for reforming English spelling by an innovative Australian thinker in her 80s, Valerie Yule. If the goal is solely to communicate, why not “mischivus,” “gardian,” “sovren”?
I realize that it’s not fair for me to weigh in on this topic because I have the gene for spelling. (I was the spelling champion of Lee County, Florida, in 1958. So there.) You either have it or you don’t, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or cogency of expression. Spelling is an autistic-savant talent, like seeing numbers in colors, probably owed to a synaesthetic crossover between the auditory and visual cortices. If you care about getting spelling right (as ever fewer people do) but don’t have the gene for it, just get a compulsive copyeditor, or a spellchecker, to do it for you.
But I have to confess that even though I’ve watched it drive generations of immigrants mad, I love English spelling. Love it. It’s an archaeological treasure trove of the uniquely layered history of our language. You’ll be going along glibly in lubricated Latinate and all of a sudden the plough turns up a rough chunk of Anglo-Saxon. There are at least two of them in that sentence, what I think of as the “fossil gutturals.” If you’ve ever heard the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales read out loud, you’ll forever hear a ghostly echo of that marvelous rasp and traction whenever you see the letters “ough.” There are silent Greek-Latin fossils too: you may have noticed the one in “synaesthetic.” I like the “ae” too; it shines, like Au.
It isn’t practical to be dragging this museum along with you as you speak, text, and tweet at 21st-century speeds. But it is beautiful.