The Grammarphobia Blog

Gone by the waistline

Q: I’ve noticed something peculiar about the graduate students who help out at the senior center I attend. These students (master’s candidates in social work) all use the word “particular” for “peculiar.” Perhaps they picked it up from a textbook. In another vein, I hear people who say “in the mixed of” or “in the mist of” instead of “in the midst of.” And I’ve heard someone say, in reference to a custom no longer practiced, “It’s gone by the waistline.”

A: Thanks so much for sharing these. My favorite is “It’s gone by the waistline.” Hilarious!

As for “peculiar” and “particular,” the two words have different meanings, and I can’t imagine why those graduate students confuse them these days.

That said, I should mention that “particular” has been used sometimes in parts of England to mean, yes, eccentric. A regional definition for “particular” in the Oxford English Dictionary, with citations dating back to 1712, is “so unusual as to excite attention; peculiar, odd, strange.” One of the citations is in George Eliot’s Silas Marner (1861): “A partic’lar thing happened … a very partic’lar thing.”

I suspect, however, that those grad students may not read much aside from textbooks. If there is a decline in reading for pleasure, it might account for a lot of mis-hearings (“in the mist/mixed of” and so on). But people (both readers and nonreaders) have been tripping over their tongues for ages.

The editor of a book I’m now writing said that in childhood he thought the expression “eke out a living” was actually “eek out a living.” And come to think of it, earning a living is very often an “Eek!” experience.

These mistakes actually have a name: eggcorns. If you’d like to read more about this phenomenon, check out my March 14, 2007, blog item about a goof similar to the ones you mentioned.

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