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  • Interesting. You’ve reminded me of words that get fossilized as “orphan negatives”, and a story in the New Yorker entitled “How I Met My Wife”, which resuscitates the positives. It begins:
    “It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my weildy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. ….” And so on. I have the full text but no exact details.

  • Gill: The essay is by Jack Winter, and it’s a comic delight – as is the phrase “orphan negatives”, which was new to me. (I’ve mentioned Winter’s piece on my blog a couple of times, most recently in a post about (un)kempt.)

  • Thanks for the reference. I was thinking too about your “hoist…petard” example – this kind of picking-apart of extremely fixed collocations is a great resource for humorists. Wodehouse does it a lot, e.g when B Wooster says “I decided to keep my lip stiff and upper”.

  • I always thought that the phrase was “beckon call”, or “Beckoning call”, because that tended to make a little bit more sense in the context used. Does the verb “to beckon” come from the phrase, or is the phrase itself an old misspelling that has become common throughout the english language ?

  • JJ: Beck came about by shortening beckon, centuries ago, so they’re closely tied by etymology. Beckon is a very old word in its own right, related to beacon.
    You’re not the only person to interpret beck and call as beckon call, as the Eggcorn Database shows.

  • Petard comes from the French word peter – meaning to fart. To be hoisted by one’s own petard conjures up an amusing image.

  • KJF: That’s true, and it does. As a child one of the words I used for it was the onomatopoeic bang, which I associate now more with non-biological kinds of explosion.

  • “Short shrift” and “hoist by your own petard” were coined by Shakespeare as were many other apt phrases. If you’ve had “cold comfort” or “too much of a good thing”, if you refuse “to budge an inch” or if you are “tongue-tied”, “hoodwinked” or “in a pickle” you are quoting Shakespeare.The same applies if you are “a tower of strength”, “bloody-minded”, if you “lie low”or refer to say, a wind farm as an “eyesore”.

  • Paul: Certainly Shakespeare was the first to put “short shrift” and “hoist by your own petard” (or rather a form of them) in writing. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that anyone using the phrases is quoting him.