Cock, Sockeye, and Lady Mondregreen

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December 21, 2017 by libroshombre

Pliny the Elder could have been describing current times when he declared, “The only certainty is that nothing is certain.” It’s hardto be cocksure when you realize you don’t even know how the word’s derived. I thought “cocksure” had something to do with the bold way roosters stride about their domains, but it’s defined as “arrogantly or presumptively overconfident” and comes from combining “cock: a euphemism for god” and “seur,” the Old French word for “sure.”

Few Alaskans know the origin of “sockeye,” as in the delicious Oncorrhynchus nerka we dipnet at Chitina. It’s nothing to do with eyeball displacement after being bonked; OxfordDictionaries.comsays the sockeye is “also called red salmon. Origin: late 19th century from Salish sukai, literally ‘fish of fishes’.” Though many of us agree with the “fish of fishes” part, Oxford’s version’s disputed in a more detailed Wikipedia article cited on the Eggcorn Forum. “The name ‘sockeye’ is an Anglicization of suk-kegh, its name in Halkomelem, the language of the indigenous people along the lower reaches of the Fraser River (one of British Columbia’s many native Coast Salish languages). Suk-kegh means red fish.”

An “eggcorn” is “a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phraseeither on its own or as part of a set expression,” Merriam-Webster tells us. “Though incorrect, eggcorns are often more satisfying or poetic than the correct word or expression. If you didn’t know how to spell the word “acorn,” then ‘eggcorn’ is a logical and satisfying alternative.”

Eggcorns and other humorous language confusions have blossomed since the advent of the Web made spreading the good word so easy, especially lyrics. The mondegreen, comes from mistaking “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen,” and Webster’s says it’s “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung: ‘very close veins’ is a mondegreen for ‘varicose veins’.” It’s related to the Japanese term “soramimi kasha” (literally “misheard lyrics”), which now means “intentionally interpreting lyrics in one language as similar-sounding words in another language.” One of the less salacious examples of soramimi from Wikipedia is when “the Palestinian patriotic song “Bladi, bladi” (“Motherland, Motherland”) was intentionally misheard into Russian as “Blyadi, blyadi (“Whores, whores”) and uploaded to YouTube with Russian subtitles. The resulting video became an instant hit.”

We all think we’re pretty good judges of people, a scary thought that was aroused by reading “Those Who Ridiculed My Accent Highlighted Their Ignorance – Not Mine,” an article by Englishman Russell Evans in TheGuardian.com. Few weeks go by without someone commenting about my vestigial Texas accent, and many more make judgments in all certitude about me based on my spoken English. As Jeff Foxworthy said, “whenever people heard my Southern accent, they always wanted to deduct 100 IQ points.”

Perhaps that’s why I’ve a softspot for DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English, the grant-funded project started in 1965 to learn how Americans across the land pronounce and use our language. As described by Jesse Sheidlower in a recent New Yorker, the project’s “teams traveled in “Word Wagons”: campers outfitted with detailed surveys, recording equipment, and linguistic graduate students.” They visited over 1,000 communities, including Anchorage and Juneau, and convinced people to take a 1,600-question survey while being recorded. Depending on where you live, for example, the “cardboard sleeve that wraps around a takeout coffee cup to insulate one’s hand from the heat is known as a ‘sleeve,’ ‘collar,’ ‘jacket,’ ‘zarf,’ ‘cozy,’ ‘or ‘clutch.’”

Twenty years or research on the findings were required before the first volume of DARE was published in 1985, and the last of the four-volume set came out in 2013. Now the grants have dried up, and the project, which “will probably prove to be the last major dictionary based on personal fieldwork,” is closing shop and shipping hundreds of boxes of data to the University of Wisconsin Library’s archives. In the paraphrased words of 16th century poet Samuel Daniel, from now on it seems we’ll have to let fragile, touchy, short-lived computers“sing of knights and paladins/ In aged accents and untimely words.”

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