LawProse Lesson 368: Ripping what you sew.

LawProse Lesson 368: Ripping what you sew.

They’re called malapropisms: humorous misapplications of words, usually because of a similarity in spelling, sound, or stress pattern. Our favorite recent example appeared last week when the New York Times printed, in large type, *low and behold in place of the age-old lo and behold.

The word lo derives from Old English (450–1099) as an interjection that directs attention to the presence or approach of something <Lo! Here come the clouds!>. The jocular phrase lo and behold, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, dates back to at least the first decade of the 1800s. The phrase caught on quickly and has been common ever since.

But beginning in the 1880s, the subliterate have been writing *low and behold, a blunder that began in American English and spread (some 40 years later) to British English. To low is to moo like a cow. Not until the turn of this century did the howler spread much. Luckily for all of us, this visual malapropism isn’t nearly as common as the correct spelling. Moo and boo.

People confound many other homophones, such as sew and sow. Because fastidious usage isn’t taught much in schools these days, malapropisms tend to spread. Perhaps we’re reaping what we’ve sown. Or ripping what we’ve sewn.

Further reading:

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed. 2016).True, it’s a heavy tome. If you get the app by the very same name, you’ll have the full book on your handheld device—plus quizzes on the 300 most common grammatical mistakes and word-choice errors. By mastering the quizzes, you’ll pick up the know-how that professional editors carry in their heads. Try the app. It’s Garner’s Modern English Usage—and it’s about half the list price of the book.

Here’s the link for iPhones: click here.

And for Androids: click here.

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