I’ve developed a pretty high threshold of interest for the eggcorns they investigate so assidously over at the Log: once you realize how common it is for people to get phrases wrong (free reign for free rein being a classic example in writing, for all intensive purposes instead of for all intents and purposes in speech), you get jaded. But Jeanette Winterson has renewed my enthusiasm, in a wonderful essay for The Times, by taking note of the stories people invent to account for what they take to be the idiom. She starts off with a beautiful example:
The other day my elderly country neighbour asked for a bit of help to get his new washing machine into the kitchen. That generation never use “it”, always, “he” or “she”, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.
“The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly . . . where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’.”
People are lousy at accurate reproduction, but they’re great at storytelling, and I could happily read an entire book of anecdotes like that. (Winterton herself “laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”)
Courtesy of Syntinen Laulu at Wordorigins.org.