Sunday, June 22, 2014

Poring over the straits of spelling

There are a couple of words that I feel like I see misspelled with some frequency, including among people who "should know better," which includes editors. These are pore and straitjacket. (Well, there are others, but these are the ones I'm thinking about today.)

I began thinking about pore when one of the kids, who was a tween at the time, reported to me with some pride that she'd found a typo in one of the Harry Potter books--namely, they'd misspelled "pour" in an expression like pore over a book. That alerted me to the idea that pore and poring were encountered seldom enough that even an avid reader might not have consciously encountered the terms by the age of, dunno, 13 or so.

I can't think of a clear (well, easy) way to research whether this is a change or whether it's always been so, especially since pore as a noun is extremely common, especially in the beauty industry. Nonetheless, indirect evidence is that pore shows up on lists of commonly misspelled or commonly confused words (#).

For straitjacket, it's slightly easier to see a trend of the increasing use of straightjacket, thanks to the Google ngram viewer:



As with pore, I think that the comparative rarity of the term strait (and straits) contributes to the confusion, as another chart suggests, this in spite of the bump that Mark Knopfler's group Dire Straits might have given the term around 1978, haha.


Arnold Zwicky contributed the entry in the Eggcorn Database on strait > straight, and if there's anyone who's given thought to the Recency Illusion, certainly it's him.

It's not an unreasonable mistake, not only due to the relative rarity of strait, but because it isn't hard to make some sense of the term straightjacket, perhaps (dunno) in the sense that it keeps your arms straight, or something like that.

If nothing else, it's evidence (as if we needed any) that spelling in English is hard. Even for those who work with it all day long.

2 comments:

Alon said...

I can't think of a clear (well, easy) way to research whether this is a change or whether it's always been so, especially since pore as a noun is extremely common, especially in the beauty industry.

A relatively simple way is to look only at the gerund-participle form (‘poring’), which is unambiguous. The results suggest that the verb is in fact making a comeback, after reaching historical minima in the early 1970s. That is, the verb+‘over’ construction; other prepositions have all but disappeared.

What seems to happen is that the homographous noun has steadily increased in frequency, thus shifting the balance considerably, even if the verb's frequency has remained approximately constant in absolute terms.

WordzGuy said...

Thanks, this is great info! Also, a good lesson in some of the features of the ngram viewer.