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As the saying goes ... or doesn't

by: Marilyn Owen (25 February 2009)

It seems that most of us regularly use phrases that have been misquoted from well-known sayings in English literature.

I must admit that I am surprised to find that many people mispronounce the common phrase "on tenter hooks" as "on tender hooks". On the other hand, what I didn't know is that the phrase derives from a wooden frame that was used to hang clothes out to dry. Maybe I never thought about it, but like most people I guess just accepted it as a common phrase.

I do think it is understandable that we have changed some phrases. For example, many of us use the saying "all that glitters is not gold". But did you know that this should really be "all that glisters is not gold"? I didnít, but anyway you'd feel a bit odd saying that, wouldn't you, even if the saying is a Shakespearean quote from 'The Merchant of Venice'. Nevertheless glisters is the word that should be used in the saying.

A recent survey of a thousand British people conducted by hearing aid retailer Amplifon has revealed that the nation's hearing abilities may be at fault! Apparently we tend to mishear these quotes and then just carry on making the same mistakes, usually passing them on to our children too! It is a fine example of just how words and phrases can be distorted over time.

Here is a list of the top ten British misquotes as found in the survey.

  1. A damp squid wrongly used for a damp squib
  2. On tender hooks for on tenter hooks
  3. Nip it in the butt for nip it in the bud
  4. Champing at the bit for chomping at the bit
  5. A mute point for a moot point
  6. One foul swoop for one fell swoop
  7. All that glitters is not gold for all that glisters is not gold
  8. Adverse to for averse to
  9. Batting down the hatches for batten down the hatches
  10. Find a penny pick it up for find a pin pick it up

I can think of some other examples of common mistakes and malapropisms, but one that comes to mind was my late mother-in-law's use of calendar for a kitchen colander. I'll try to remember some other ones too.

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