May 5, 2000
Guy K. Haas wrote:
Why do some folks "take another tact" instead of "taking another tack"? Surely, the phrase comes from sailing. It's not quite metathesis.
No, it's not metathesis. With tack vs. tact there's no switching of sounds; you just tack an extra one on (sorry). But it's not quite a mondegreen either. So what is it?
Jesse discussed the term mondegreen last year, 'a misheard word or phrase that results in a misinterpretation'. But tact instead of tack falls short of being a mondegreen, primarily because there may not be a mishearing involved. Take another tack is part of a family of terms ("on the right/wrong tack") that use "tack" to mean the direction you're going in (literal and metaphorical), all of these terms related to tacking in sailing. And while some people might think that "tact" has something to do with "tactics," i.e., choosing a new strategy, a more likely explanation is that either the brain or the tongue is simply reaching for a familiar word and avoiding an odd one.
The people who take another tact are like those who say they own a "Compact" computer instead of a "Compaq." Sometimes semantic fuzziness creeps in as well, as with a child I knew who liked to watch "the Long Ranger," or the little boy on a TV ad who gets "chicken pops." Then there is the garbled written word: the note I read that said, "For all in tents and purposes, I might as well be there," or the glossy brochure I got from a Toronto hotel reading, "We're at your beckoned call," (as against "beck and..."), or the movie reviewer who wanted to "wet our appetites."
So the errors that confound the rest of us may result from someone's confusion about meanings, sounds, spellings, or some mixture of the three. A test: True "mondegreeners" are shocked to discover their errors and usually correct them, whereas the perpetrators of subtle pronunciation mistakes often don't care. Tell them they're wrong and, as I've said before, they roll their eyes and say "Whatever."
Another test: The small errors drive the rest of us nuts, whereas mondegreens are funny. The term now frequently refers to lyrics, and the two classic examples are: "The answer, my friends, is blowin' in the wind," misheard as "The ants are my friends...," and Jimi Hendrix' "scuse me while I kiss the sky" is thought to be "scuse me while I kiss this guy." See what I mean?
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