Mea Culpa: zeroing in on a target known as an eggcorn

Questions of style and usage in last week’s Independent

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Saturday 06 June 2020 19:14
Caravaggio painted card sharps – we talk of ‘card sharks’
Caravaggio painted card sharps – we talk of ‘card sharks’

We briefly said in a headline that the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann “hones in on suspect”. This phrase was originally a mishearing of “homes in on”, confusing it with “hone”, meaning to sharpen or refine. It refers to a missile homing in on its target, whereas hone, from Old English for stone, refers to sharpening the blade of a knife or sword.

This kind of phrase was named an “eggcorn” by Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist, in 2003, after that mishearing of “acorn”. Many of them are quite logical, such as “wipe board” for “whiteboard”, or “card shark” for “card sharp”. So much so that some of them have become the preferred usage, such as “duct tape”, which was originally “duck tape”, made from duck cloth (from Dutch doek, canvas), but which makes more sense to people as heavy duty tape for sealing heating ducts.

The “hone” form of “home in on” accounted for one in six uses in the British press over the past year, so it is common but not yet standard. While accepting that language changes and that some eggcorns become accepted usage, we should avoid it for as long as a lot of readers think it is wrong.

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