Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Words Hidden in Words

Yesterday Martin Kirk raised this issue:

“I am trying to find out whether there is a word to describe the written linguistic situation where a word is unintentionally misspelled, resulting in another correct word which makes sense in the context but is the opposite of that intended in an ironic way, e.g. cease the opportunity instead of seize the opportunity or relive the pain instead of relieve the pain.”

“I have quries this with the Oxford Dictionary Press‘s ‘question line’ and they suggest that I am describing a malapropism. I do not agreee withn this. Have you any better sugestions.”

I can think of a couple of points in this connection. First, however, remember that languages are spoken or signed. Writing is a superficial attempt at symbolizing what is spoken. Fewer than 2000 of the world’s approximately 6700 languages and dialects have functioning writing systems. While writing has some effect on language change (adding the T in the pronunciation of often), it is marginal to the point of being trivial.

The question, then, resolves to one of whether mispronunciation leads to permanent language change. The mispronunciation of courtesy led to curtsy and, if you follow our Good Word series, you know that ornery was once a mispronunciation of ordinary. These words are examples of phonological reduction, very common in language; we see it all the time in contractions.

This process is not usually referred to as malapropism, which is usually the mispronunciation of a word so that it sounds like another, e.g. a fire distinguisher or a wolf in cheap clothing. My favorite was actually written in a freshman thesis at Bucknell some years ago: a devil-make-hair attitude.

The words you mention (relive – relieve, seize – cease) are only accidentally similar and are wholly unrelated derivationally and historically. The only similar normal historical change I know of is a change in pronunciation that leads to the loss of the relationship of a derivation to its base or origin. I call them words with hidden words within them for lack of a term and they seem to have caught only my eye (or, more properly, ear).

I’m thinking now of words like disease which today is unrelated semantically to ease, the word it was derived from.┬áNo one out of the cloth associates atonement with its origin, the phrase at one. We don’t think of business as simply the activity of being busy any more.

So far as I know, I’m the only one writing about such words and I haven’t named them yet. What do you think we should call them?

3 Responses to “Words Hidden in Words”

  1. Heather Sisman Says:

    “Yesterday Martin Kirk raised this issue yesterday”

    Greetings from Canada. I love your blog, and this entry really made me smile. I wasn’t sure whether you’d like me pointing out the above – but thought it was worth a try.

    I’m a ‘wordie’ myself. If others can be foodies, we can be wordies, right?

  2. Janet McConnaughey Says:

    Um, wouldn’t that be a pun?

  3. Larry Lewis Says:

    I do something very similar….


    Posted Date: : Sep 14, 2009 8:53 AM

    I have used the truth within words formula that i have discovered from reading the christian holy bible concerning Jesus being the word and the truth being within him to locate past truths and predict future truths aswell.I figured the formula would pass onto our own words and that we could find absolute truths within our own words just by unscrambling the letters and knowing what to look for…

    This is what i found within the words “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” concerning the september 11th attacks…

    World Trade Center : On “Tuesday” Sept. 11th thousands of people lost their lives…

    (T)(H)(E) U(N)(I)(T)(E)(D) (S)T(A)T(E)(S) (O)(F) (A)(M)E(R)I(C)(A) = IT CRASHED INTO – SAME FATE (3 letter are left over T.U.E)

    “It crashed into” is what happened the first attack on 9/11.”Same fate” is what will occur to those who are involved in the next attack..The 3 letters left over are T.U.E.Those 3 letters are short for Tuesday which is the day of the first 9/11/01 attacks..

    All of these 9/11 links are located within the words “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA”.What are the odds of these links to 9/11 and a future attack all being found within the name of the country that the attack happened in?

    I have many other fining such a this one..I call it “truth within words”..

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