The Proofreader’s role
Proofreading involves so much more than being on the lookout for obvious spelling mistakes and those preposition omissions that are so, so easy to make.
The brain is too clever by half at seeing what it knows should be on the page screen rather than what actually is. It’s ever ready to booby-trap you and none of us are immune. So as there are also apostrophe atrocities, homophone horrors and punctuation paucity to look out for.
Yet another is the misuse of idioms. And it’s here where a good knowledge of the English language comes in handy.
The English cup overfloweth with idiomatic expressions—there are something in the region of 25,000 of them. And if I had a pound for every one of them I’d be able to buy all the tea in China.
Now clearly I can’t pretend to know them all – that would be to bite off more than I could chew – but a good grasp of the commonly used ones is helpful. After all – a stitch in time saves nine!
This extract of text from an article recently seen in The Telegraph is a good example. Your computer’s spelling and grammar check wouldn’t pick it up because nothing is incorrectly spelled and the sentence makes grammatical sense.
Such linguistic perversions of well known idiomatic expression are referred to as ‘eggcorns’. The misused idiom in question here is ‘slight of hand’—it should actually be ‘sleight of hand’.
What are eggcorns?
In linguistics, an eggcorn is an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker’s dialect (sometimes called oronyms). The new phrase introduces a meaning that is different from the original, but plausible in the same context, such as “old-timers’ disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease“. Eggcorns often involve replacing an unfamiliar, archaic, or obscure word with a more common or modern word (“baited breath” for “bated breath“).
A linguistics professor named Geoffrey Pullum coined the term and you can read more of that here: http://io9.com/eggcorn-the-invented-word-that-describes-invented-word-1629293915
Sleight not slight
So why should it be ‘sleight’ and not ‘slight’? Well because ‘slight’ means inconsequential/of little relevance/importance or slender of build. Whereas ‘sleight’ refers to trickery or deviousness. The term alludes to the performance of magic tricks with the hands but is now used in such contexts as: ‘By some sleight of hand they managed to overlook all bonuses.’ Its figurative use dates from about 1700.
Some etymology of the term: Middle English, alteration of sleahthe, from Old Norse slœgdh, from slœgr, sly.
For an eggcorn database go here: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net and this article in The Guardian has some good examples: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/16/that-eggcorn-moment