Pedant Corner: it’s Free REIN, whoa Nelly!

Champion racehorse Phar Lap heading for the finish line, tightly directed by his jockeyIt’s an equestrian metaphor, not a monarchy metaphor. OK?

Peeve Context: every second website I read these days seems to contain an example of the usage “given free reign” when the more accurate term is “given free rein” (perhaps it’s not quite that frequent, but it’s still making me twitch violently far too often in a day).

Jargon: this particular class of usage error is known as an eggcorn. Some people think that eggcorns are marvellous examples of the evolution of language in action, and certainly it can be fascinating to watch how the modern lack of wide experience in at least observing plenty of horse-riding has given the substitution of “reign” a certain folk-etymology logic as pertaining to sovereignty over a certain area of influence/responsibility.

But it still makes me twitch.

Categories: history, language

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23 replies

  1. Me too! Also, you would be amazed by how many of my students use “populous” instead of “populace”, and in any case don’t understand the nuance of “populace”, so they are using it inappropriately anyway. A double-yoked eggcorn.

  2. That one also bothers me a lot. I was reading something the other day that used the term “giving full reign” to something, and it occurred to me that maybe in addition to people confusing the homonyms, they may also be conflating those two phrases.

  3. Yes! me too!
    An eggcorn I’ve been seeing quite a bit lately (and which gives me interesting mental images) is ‘towing the line’.

  4. I’ve long ascribed such wonderful muddles as being a consequence of several things: people’s ignorance of the full scope of our wonderful eclectic mess of a language; a tendency toward “spell it as it sounds” and all the various linguistic variants caused by different accents; and computerised spelling checker programs which offer a list of alternative options for words which may not be misspelled at all. One of the things I have on my “that would be a good idea” list is a spelling check program which links to dictionary definitions of the various words, so people can see what the words mean before blithely accepting that the computer knows best. This would hopefully prevent such wonderful snafus as someone using “ablations” instead of “ablutions”, or such slashfic staples as the “prostrate” gland, or the “wonton” actions of one’s lover (for example, sitting in a steamer getting soggy, being deep-fried, or being immersed in clear soup?).
    I’m less inclined to think of these sorts of things as being “language evolution in action” and more inclined to use phrases like “homophone and homonym confusion”, and “does nobody know how to read a dictionary any more?”; at least, I’m inclined to use those when I’m not tearing my hair out in frustration and swearing at the screen.
    (Why yes, I have been rambling around on recently. However did you guess?)

  5. For all intensive purposes, I think “giving free reign” is ok.

  6. And in the event that the phrase is used in the context of removal of constitutional restrictions on the monarch of the day you may indeed say that free rein has been given to freely reign.

  7. @Meg: one of the lunch places near my office was advertising ‘wanton soup’ the other day.

  8. Jo @7: The mind boggles. Were they suggesting it was aphrodisiac; commenting on the behaviour of the ingredients (in which case, what on earth were the criteria being used and more importantly, how the heck did they know?); or commenting on the behaviour of the brew itself?

    Ah well, at least those of us who are literally minded will never be short of entertainment.

  9. Conversely, I had several students last term comment in their papers on the figure in decadent literature of the “wonton woman”. Seriously.
    La, when she will take the rein
    I let her run, but she’ll not stumble.

  10. My latest peeve is a trick of pronunciation: both Abbott and Gillard, and numerous other politicians, are pronouncing “a” as “ay”. As in, We are introducing ay policy… Just one aspect of the linguistic tics of our politicians which drive me nuts.

  11. … these phases of language evolution also faze me, but please may I agree and add – phase v faze

  12. These may be (originally) Americanisms, but as far as I’m concerned, they are grammatically incorrect:
    predominately for predominantly
    alternate for alternative (although at least ‘alternate’ is a real word, unlike ‘predominately’)

    • Lately I’ve been seeing “wholistic” quite frequently – that’s another one where the faux-etymology has a certain logic.

  13. I just thought of this post again when I came across this pearler about mail order on a forum:

    they will charge you extra if you have the gaul to request express

  14. Tig – that is one for the bucket list I think.

  15. @tigtog, it led to many nerdy jokes being sent around my family about the package being divided into three parts and possible mottos for the mail-order company (tricari, extorti, transporti – I tricked, I extorted, I posted)

  16. Sweet FSM save us – “wrought the system”.

  17. Recently I’ve noticed people using ‘If X thinks Y, X has another thing coming,’ and started wondering whether I’d been misusing it all this time, and the phrase really was designed to suggest that thinking a particular way led to other consequences. Nope. It really is ‘another think coming’. Phew!

  18. Wildly P, that’s an unusual example of where the wrong version is more lexically correct than the right version.

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