Saturday, November 13, 2010

pre-fixed menu

I saw a nice example of an eggcorn the other day, advertising a "pre-fixed" menu. This is of course referring to the phenomenon of a "prix fixe" menu, where restaurants offer a multi-course meal for a set price (typically one that's cheaper than expected). Even though I don't speak French, I've always thought this phrase was fairly transparent: as an English-speaker, I'm familiar with the fact that French adjectives (like most other Romance languages) have adjectives after the noun -- we even have some traces of it in English, e.g., Attorney-General. And if you know that much, it's not a big stretch from prix fixe --> price fixed --> fixed price. But for someone who's only ever heard the phrase pronounced, the similarity might not be as obvious: /ˌpriːˈfɪks/. This certainly does sound almost identical to a standard pronunciation of "pre-fixed". And since prix fixe menus have a price that's already set, the semantic notion of a menu being "pre-fixed" makes sense as well. Phonetic similarity + semantic compositionality = the perfect scenario for eggcorn formation.

Just for fun, some examples that I found online:


Steffen said...

Hi Ryan

Thank you for sharing your observations of linguistic behaviour in American English. You know, I was unfamiliar with the term "eggcorn" so I followed your link to Wikipedia and reading that short explanation and the rest of yours reminded me of a phenomenon that historical linguist Lyle Campbell mentions in his "Historical Linguistics: An Introduction". In the chapter on Analogical Change (p. 99) he has something called "folk etymology (popular etymology)" which he defines as "cases where linguistic imagination finds meaningful associations in the linguistic forms which were not originally there and, on the basis of these new associations, either the original form ends up being changed somewhat or new forms based on it are created" and he cites examples such as: "hamburger" which came from German (Hamburg + er) but in English was folk-etymologised into having to do with "ham" from which other forms where formed such as "cheeseburger", "chickenburger" and "chiliburger". Another example is "beef jerky, jerked beef" from Quechua "c'arqui" (through Spanish "charqui"). Nothing is "jerked" in the preparation of his dried meat. Another example is "outrage" coming from French "outrage" from Latin "ultra + agium" meaning that the original etymology of "outrage" has nothing to do with "out" or "rage".
It seems to me that Campbells "folketymology" is the same phenomenon as Pullum's "eggcorn" - what do you think?

linguistlessons said...

That's a good question, and it seems like other people have also had trouble distinguishing eggcorns and folk etymologies. I'm not sure if there's a fundamental difference. See some discussion here:

literalminded said...

Those ignorant menu writers obviously don't realize that French words never end in a consonant sound: It's pronounced "pre-fee"!

MyOtherTongue said...

literalminded, I'm afraid that's not correct. 'fixe' in this case would in fact be pronounced [fiks]. many words in french end in a consonant. for example, 'france' [frɑ̃s].

Jim said...

"many words in french end in a consonant. for example, 'france' [frɑ̃s]."

They don't end in consonants. you are just not hearing the vowels. They are faint, but they are there. If you say "La belle France", there is a very faint vowel between the 'l' and the 'f'. The same is true after the 's'. And not just in Provence, either.

vp said...


Such words may have the orthographic realized as a schwa in certain situations -- e.g. in singing.

However in normal conversational standard French there is no schwa.