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“Soft peddle” and the Professors of Peevage

December 31, 2012

The Professors of Peevage at Lake Superior State University are at it again with yet another of their tedious lists of words they feel should be banned.  But this post is not about going to be about concocted ersatz outrage from third tier institutions.  Rather, I want to talk about an interesting misspelling.

In the CNN article by Thom Patterson about the list, my friend Geoff Nunnberg is quoted:

"Journalists always like cliffs," Nunberg jokes. "There’s more pressure to use phrases like that, because if you soft peddle things, nobody’s going to read the story."

Now, I am certain that Geoff did not “say” the words “soft peddle,” – I’ve found Geoff to be precise in his articulation, and without doubt he correctly pronounced “soft pedal,” rather than its near homonym “soft peddle.”

So why did  and Patterson (and his editor) get it wrong?  Well, the phrase “soft pedal” refers to muted voice – a piano’s voice when the “soft pedal” (e.g., the celeste) is depressed, or con sordino.   But maybe Patterson heard the phrase in contrast to “hard sell,” suggesting the incorrect “soft peddle.”  To be fair, Patterson is not alone in this error – Google indicates that this error is not uncommon – and now it has been endorsed by CNN. 

Simple knowledge of phrasal etymology could prevent this error, but this new false etymology suggests an incorrect spelling.  While some might think that this represents a certain decline in literacy (and a far more serious than the entries on the Professors of Peevage’s list – there is, after all, nothing misspelled in the phrase “fiscal cliff”), I prefer to look on the bright side – thanks to the work of CNN, we now have an excellent justification for teaching etymology when we teach new words.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2012 2:59 pm

    Ha! Your post reminds me of Terrance Hayes’s “Harryette Mullen Lecture on the American Dream” in Wind in a Box:

    Mud is thicker than what is thicker than water. Pull your head up by your chin straps. Put the pedal to the metal. Peddle to the middle. Put the medal on the pedestal. I pledge Sister Sledgehammer & Father knows beds, but I am not my breather’s keeper. I pledge to earn every holler & if found guilty, I pledge to repay my Bill of Rights to Society. From me to shining me. Money, money, money, monkey. We’re number none. Our number’s done. E pluribus unumbskull. For war and several fears we go. Praise be to Guard. Slops & Slobbers. Maladies & Gentrifications. Don’t kill us, we’ll kill you. With lobotomy & Jesus for all.

  2. December 31, 2012 3:31 pm

    Thanks for the Terrance Hayes quote — first I’ve encountered him. Ordering his poetry books now!

  3. December 31, 2012 4:21 pm

    I had a similar problem with their confusion between “double down” and “reiterate”. Reiterate does not eliminate later flexibility, double down does. Reiterate doesn’t imply greater commitment, double down does. Etc… Their problem is they don’t seem to know what the words mean they are complaining about.

  4. December 31, 2012 4:28 pm

    CD-Host: Just so.

  5. January 1, 2013 3:02 pm

    Perhaps we should just stick to flowery phrases with soft petals. =)

  6. January 1, 2013 7:20 pm

    Elena, are you suggesting that we should speak softly and carry a big bouquet? 😉

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