Q: I’ve been wondering about something I swear I learned as an undergrad (longer ago than I’d ever admit) in a development of the English language course. It was about a man who grew up thinking artificial snow was called “Archie Fisher snow.” As a boy in a small town, he’d misheard a reference to the snow in a Christmas display in Archie Fisher’s drugstore. I think this phenomenon has a name but I can’t remember it.
A: By chance, as we were researching another question, we recently happened upon the reference you mention. It’s described in The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles & John Algeo.
The anecdote is told on page 280 in our copy of the book:
“As a child too young to read, one of the authors of this book misheard artificial snow as Archie Fisher snow, a plausible enough boner for one who lived in a town in which a prominent merchant was named Archie Fisher. In any case, Mr. Fisher displayed the stuff in his window, and for all an innocent child knew, he might even have invented it.”
The story is told in Chapter 11 (“New Words From Old”), in a section called “Blending Words.” This particular blend (Archie Fisher snow) is described in a subsection called “Folk Etymology.”
The authors write: “Folk etymology—the naive misunderstanding of a more or less esoteric word that makes it into something more familiar and hence seems to give it a new etymology, false though it be—is a minor kind of blending.”
Another example is given, in which dance students at an American university described a certain ballet jump as a “soda box.” Questioned by a visiting German teacher of dance, they insisted this was what it was called and even how it was spelled.
What they were referring to was the ballet term saut de Basque (Basque leap).
The authors describe another, and more widespread, misunderstanding in which the phrase “chest of drawers” is misheard as “Chester drawers.” This mistake, the authors note, has even appeared in furniture-store advertisements.
We can well believe it. As we’ve said before in our blog, we once spotted a newspaper ad for a sale on “Chip ’n’ Dale” furniture. The store’s ad manager confused “Chippendale” with Chip and Dale, the Disney cartoon chipmunks.
As we mentioned, the Pyles and Algeo book includes such usages among blends traceable to folk etymology, but most people would probably refer to them as malapropisms. A more recent, and more precise, term would be “eggcorns.”
We’ve discussed malapropisms and eggcorns several times on the blog, including postings in 2007 and 2010. A similar term, “mondegreens,” is usually applied to goofy mishearings of song lyrics or poems.
We can’t end this without mentioning an example of mangled usage that we heard about from a blog reader named Mark. When he played hide-and-seek with his little nephew, the boy would say: “Uncle Mark … get set … go!”
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