“Firstable”

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Ryan Broderick,”People Are Actually Writing The Word ‘Firstable’ Online Instead Of ‘First Of All’: What has the internet done to our brains?“.  In response, Ben Zimmer entered firstable in the Eggcorn Database, noting uses back to 1996:

  • Firstable, the term “indian” and christianity were imposed in Peru through blood and fire by European conquerors.(Marxism mailing list, Jan. 28, 1996)
  • Here is an essay written as part of the admissions procedure for our University Honors Program… “Firstable, to stay away from the reality of those traps that people are facing, I would be felt some classes if I weren’t focus.” (HAPP mailing list, Oct. 26, 2000)
  • I have many ways to explorate but firstable, I would like to work on relations between the “recall” of roman empire and colonial theories / words / language. (H-West-Africa mailing list, Mar. 3, 2002)
  • Well firstable thanks so much to you and to Wuwei Liang because it is a very helpful tool. (VMD mailing list, Nov. 8, 2005)
  • Well, firstable, it was very boring. (Freshman Seminar @ Baruch College, Dec. 3, 2009)
  • Firstable you have to know that the room and bathroom were very dirty and unhealthy. (TripAdvisor, Jan. 8, 2013)
  • Firstable, you’re asked to pay your room in advance. (TripAdvisor, Oct. 3, 2013)

The fact that examples go back at least to 1996 suggests that the internet is not really the culprit.

Ben also notes a post in the Eggcorn Forum by alexkrich from 2006:

This one seems so common that I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been covered already on this site. I first heard of it from a professor of mine, who told me that she received papers from college students with this eggcorn. A Google search for the former (“firstable”) yields 13,400 results, while a search for the latter (“firstible”) yields 648 results, and a suggestion from Google that I may have meant: “firstable.”  

This seems to be a word that is still recognized as incorrect by most people, and is mainly used by non-native English speakers unfamiliar with the phrase “first of all.” This is compounded by the dubious construction “second of all,” which suggests to the casual listener that ”-able” is an ordinal suffix.  

I have not yet seen any instances of this term in print; most of the use of this word seems to be confined to blogs and discussion boards.

Firstable (or firstible) does seem especially attractive to  L2 users of English. For example, Mmettvabien asked in the Word Reference Forums (10/23/2006):

I’ve to make a presentation in english and I wanted to know if to say “premièrement” I can use firstable? I’ve heard it I think… Is it of common use??

Merci d’avance!!!

One of the responses is gravely unhelpful:

Vous dites que vous avez entendu cette expression. Ne serait-ce pas plutôt “first table” (l’orateur appelant à se reporter au premier tableau de résultats)?

 And Wordnik cites a question (3/19/2009) on the asp.net forum that starts:

hi there, firstable i’m need your completely consideration about my english writing because i’m mexican and this is my first time posting in an english forum.

 



43 Comments

  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 13, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

    I think a case can be made that the Internet is at least partly responsible for the proliferation of eggcorns in written language, for a couple of reasons.

    People now do much more of their communication by typing than in the pre-Internet era, and are thereby obliged to come up with spellings for words or phrases that they’ve previously encountered only in spoken language.

    Also, spoken eggcorns have a limited audience and may often go unnoticed. But published on a blog, they can be seen and copied by thousands of readers, and gain greater currency that way.

  2. Santeri Lintula said,

    November 13, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

    Almost (if not) all of Buzzfeed’s examples seem to be teens repeating a Tumblr meme. Typical journalism.

  3. Julian said,

    November 13, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

    My English-as-a-fourth-language grandmother made this mistake on a postcard to my family in the 1980’s. One more unreliable anecdote to confirm it pre-dates the Internet.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    November 13, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

    I have an additional theory as to the internet being particularly helpful in proliferating eggcorns. I’ll present it in somewhat stronger, less equivocal terms than it may deserve.

    According to my theory, the internet has caused a lot of “the great unwashed” to write their thoughts down. In times past, the editing process meant that expressions had a fixed written form and even if an author wasn’t personally 100% sure what that was, the editor knew and the author’s mistakes didn’t appear in print. Written media were a reliable guide to the orthodox written form of the language.

    Now people who were never familiar with written media are writing their own thoughts down without benefit of an educated intermediary. This has two effects: first, whatever chaos is swirling around in their heads is what gets printed. Second, and with larger-scale implications, people get used to seeing those unorthodox written forms and become less certain of the orthodoxy than they would have been in the past, when written media spoke “with one voice”.

    In essence, the internet allows the written language to change in a manner more similar to how the spoken language always has, by democratizing written forms. Everyone who writes “firstable” is contributing to a real language change. Greater accessibility of having your words in print (which the internet provides) leads to the uneducated and unorthodox having a greater voice in the direction and future of the language.

  5. cameron said,

    November 13, 2014 @ 11:26 pm

    “secondable” returns a fair number of ghits as well. Mostly in direct conjuction with “firstable”.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 1:49 am

    “Secondable” could be construed as an obscure parliamentary term, i.e. a motion that’s seconded presumably must have been secondable. Whether it’s ever actually used in this sense I have no idea (and some cursory Googling didn’t enlighten me).

    There is apparently a usage in UK English in which an employee is considered secondable if they can be temporarily seconded (transferred) to another assignment.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 2:20 am

    @Gregory Kusnick: But British English second, as a verb meaning ‘transfer temporarily to another assignment’, is stressed on the second syllable. Similarly seconded, secondment, secondable, seconding, etc. I don’t think I’ve ever heard secondable in this sense, but secondment and seconded are quite common.

  8. Thomas Rees said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 2:39 am

    Gregory Kusnick’s “secondable” would be /sɪˈkɒndəbl/, right?
    BTW, isn’t there a peeve about “first, secondly”? Ah, yes; here’s the ineffable Nevile Gwynne drivelling on last year in the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationquestions/9990622/Good-grammar-quiz-the-answers.html

  9. Zizoz said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 2:42 am

    My first thought was that “firstable” might refer to blog posts with no comments on which one could post “first”.

  10. John Walden said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 3:00 am

    You might expect “lastable” to Google satisfactorily. There are plenty of hits for “lastable” meaning “able to last” but I can’t find ones meaning “last of all”, except for a few tongue-in-cheek examples.

    @Michael Watts. I definitely agree that the internet brings unorthodox English into the public eye and that back in the print days well-meaning editors and educators tidied up correspondents’ and contributor’s English before it got seen. Direct input to news sites, without benefit of subbing, is showing that journalists are not paragons of precision.

    I’m guessing that a study of soldiers’ letters home or any other body of “unfiltered” writing would reveal that eggcornish misunderstandings have always around. But they were a private matter, as you say.

    A tiny anecdotal corollary is that I’ve observed that my students’ hand-written work makes me look harder at the English than when they’ve handed in typed work or work on a pen-drive. I don’t spot the same or similar errors so easily when they are submitted in the form which over the years I had got used to being correct. Until recently. So it’s the fact of their being presented like the traditionally trustworthy printed word that helps them to look more respectable.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 3:13 am

    John Walden, the second effect I’m postulating says that the increased prominence / availability / prevalence of these eggcorns is self-amplifying, in that people who would have known “better” in the olden days see them and through exposure come to view them as more acceptable. So, the eggcorns in soldiers’ handwritten letters home might exist at a certain base rate which is more or less stable over time, but with the internet allowing everyone to read everyone else’s letters home (or the analogue), the eggcorn base rate will increase as people become confused (“become confused” isn’t exactly what I mean. You learn words by being exposed to other people using them, so if you see an eggcorn often enough you’ll “learn” that it’s correct. That’s what I mean).

  12. LMorland said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 5:19 am

    Re: Buzzfeed, I clicked on the Twitter account of one such source (the “Yalie”), and found it to be “protected”. But her public description reads:

    “I’m Paige and I know firstable isn’t a word, it was a joke.”

  13. GeorgeW said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 6:37 am

    Michael Watts: Your theory makes sense. In addition to more unedited texts, I am confident that there are also just more people writing now. And, the medium tolerates (in some cases demands) informal language.

  14. Adrian said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 7:54 am

    As usual, it’s hard to tell from a quick googling just how common this is. Clicking through the pages of Google search results, there are only 407 different pages that contain this word, and many of those are either not relevant or are discussing the phenomenon (such as it is). Of course, Google is not all it’s cracked up to be, and there may really be a lot more than 407 examples on the Web. And there are probably quite a few people who say it but don’t write it because their spellchecker warns them off it. But my conclusion at the moment would be that this is a matter of idiolect among a small group of people, many of them not native speakers of English, and not something that is going to make it into dictionaries any time soon.

  15. Nathan said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    What’s the thinking on how this happened? There’s a huge difference in pronunciation (mine, at least) between “first of all” and “firstable”. The stressed vowel in all would seem to defy reinterpretation as the unstressed syllabic l in firstable. I’m used to the idea that pronunciations vary, but this one seems pretty out there.

  16. Brett said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    @Nathan: I made some recordings of myself saying “first of all” and “firstable” quickly. Then I listened to them randomly, and in most cases, I couldn’t tell which was which. In my “first of all,” there is certainly no stress on the “all.”

  17. parse said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 9:37 am

    I like the entry in which “firstable” is paired with “explorate.”

  18. briggslaw said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 10:10 am

    “Firstable” and “first of all” are likely easily confused by Spanish speakers who don’t readily distinguish between v and b.

  19. Martha said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 10:21 am

    Nathan: Firstable, a lot of English learners have trouble differentiating between [b] and [v], so there’s that. Secondable, regarding stress, I’ve found that stress means very little to some learners, and furthermore differentiating between schwa and the vowel in “all” can also prove difficult. Basically, any differences in the pronunciations of “first of all” and “firstable” might be detectable to certain students but still may not seem significant.

  20. GeorgeW said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 10:29 am

    In unmonitored speech, I think I would say FIRST.of.all and FIRS.ta.ble, both with primary stress on the first syllable.

  21. Nathan said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    Sure, the [b] vs. [v] problem would tend to confuse “first of all” with “first a ball”. But doesn’t pretty much every language on earth have a vowel that’s approximately [ɑ]? How does the confusion then happen?
    I’m wondering if maybe there’s some dialect/idiolect variation in the pronunciation of “all” that makes this more likely. Nobody out there is schwa-ing the last syllable of “first of all”, are they?

  22. LMorland said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    I just checked, and you’re right: I’m not “schwa-ing” the last syllable of “first of all.” But said quickly, the “a” of “all” is nearly swallowed up by the following “l”, so that it’s not nearly as distinct as it would be if pronounced alone… as is the final syllable of my first name, for example.

    Furthermore, it’s difficult to predict the difficultly level English language learners would have distinguishing “a+l” from “schwa + l”. When teaching French, for example, I’ve noticed that many students have difficulty distinguishing between the sound of the last syllable of “au-dessus” [above] from “au-dessous,” [below]. (“I don’t understand why more French planes don’t crash into each other,” one remarked.) However, they sound like vastly dfferent vowels to a native French speaker.

  23. ThomasH said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

    N-gram cannot find it, thank God.

  24. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

    I once told a colleague “I haven’t met all my classes yet,” and I had to repeat it three times, the last time with spaces between the words, before she realized I wasn’t saying “metal.” (She was a new department member from the other side of the Ohio.)

  25. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    Nathan: I think more relevant is that many languages, notably Spanish, don’t have a schwa vowel.

  26. Akito said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 1:36 am

    Many posts have ascribed “firstable” to L2 interference, but isn’t it mainly native speakers who write that?

  27. LMorland said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 1:57 am

    Akito, why do you think so? As far as I recall, the sources cited were either from English learners or were a brief Internet (Reddit?) meme.

    (ThomasH wrote that it doesn’t even show up in N-gram.)

  28. Sister_Ray said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 7:16 am

    The version I’ve seen from several German students is firstival – which someone else has also observed in the last comment on this blog post on first(ly) etc.

    Finding authentic examples of this usage isn’t easy but here are two:

    Firstival what is true love what is being in love… Is there a difference?

    Hello everyone, firstival i would like to say that my english is not evry good but i would like to share my experience of playing my little bunny here, so my apology if there r any misunderstandings.

    Apparently it is not only used by ESL students as in this quote from a ‘funny freshman essay’:

    Firstival, the president should…

    I learned a new word. It appears to sound like “festival,” but is synonymous with “first of all”.

    (As an aside: This current teacher isn’t too fond of this former teacher poking fun at the ignorance of students and I’m also not completely sold on the authenticity of the quoted student writing.

  29. Nathan said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 10:41 am

    At least “firstival” has the right final vowel, but obviously “festival” doesn’t.

  30. Akito said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    LMorland – somehow I was under the impression that L2 speakers picked up what was already current orally among native speakers, but maybe I was wrong. The reason I got that impression is that L2 speakers like me who reside outside of English-speaking countries have learned the language mainly through the written medium and would not have encountered that word form until quite recently, much less invent it. I don’t know much about N-gram. Does it cover spoken as well as written data?

  31. LMorland said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    Akito,

    “L2 speakers like me who reside outside of English-speaking countries have learned the language mainly through the written medium….”

    I agree that it’s an unusual situation. Perhaps the L2 speakers who have created “firstable/firstival” are taking English classes? Or watching YouTube instructional videos, such as “Khan Academy”? When you think about it, the phrase “first of all” is rather “teacherly” talk.

    It’s a mystery!

    (And yes, the N-gram corpus is based on published books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Ngram_Viewer)

    Laura

  32. Nanani said,

    November 15, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    My first guess was actually speech-to-text input, perhaps improperly calibrated (e.g., a US-English speaker with a UK calibrated device), but some of the examples are rather old for that.

    Now I want to play with Siri until she hears “firstable”.

  33. kcmamu said,

    November 16, 2014 @ 3:03 am

    http://books.google.com will help you!

    * The study has been divided in four parts. Firstable, the basic differences between the AIJ standards and the ACI-71 code are established and some comments about the Reinforced Concrete Code of Peru are also given. (Individual Studies by Participants at the International Institute of Seismology and Earthquake Engineering, 1976)

    *Proof. – Firstable we observe that we can write (*formula*) where (*formula*) is a multiindex and the second sum is for (*formula*). (Bollettino Della Unione Matematica Italiana, 1978)

    * The concept of disposability involves three properties: firstable, disposability means physical accessibility. (Criteria for Selecting Appropriate Technologies Under Different Cultural, Technical and Social Conditions: Bari, Italy, May 21-23, 1979)

  34. Mary said,

    November 16, 2014 @ 5:31 am

    I encountered “firstable” in student writing in the 1980s when I taught ESL at the college level.

  35. John O'Toole said,

    November 16, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    In non-rhotic Albion, an L2 student of English I was privately tutoring in Switzerland had indeed understood for quite some time “festival” for “first of all.” She told the story about herself by that point, having eventually been corrected either in writing or by asking why the devil “festival” in English would be used for “d’abord” or “tout d’abord” or “premièrement” in French. I don’t remember how she had justified the connection in her own mind before being set straight. And I don’t know how one might go about looking for examples of such a probably foreign-born eggcorn, but it would surely be interesting if some were found.

  36. richardelguru said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 7:33 am

    I once had a fun-peeve (think the contrast between fur and fun-fur) in one of my silly radio pieces that started:
    …when you say “First of all”. That “of all” means that whatever-it-is is really, really first rather than “neyh, sort of first-ish”. That’s why you can’t really say “Second of all”. Second just isn’t that important, especially over here! You might as well say “twelfth of all”, or “seventeenth of all”
    But you can, of course, say “Last of all”, I mean, that can get pretty intense. …

  37. George said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 9:18 am

    One more pre-internet data point. My then-girlfriend (originally from Iran) used ‘firstable’ in the late ’80s.

  38. Rube said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

    @Nanani: I had the same guess, but was unable to make any voice-to-text app produce “first of all” as “firstable”. They won’t even produce “firstable” as “firstable”, which, come to think of it, makes sense: they’re not programmed to create non-words.

  39. BZ said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    Why is “Second of all” dubious? Doesn’t “First of all” usually introduce a list with at least a “second of all” and possibly third, fourth, etc too? On the other hand, I can’t think of any reason to say “last of all”

  40. Levantine said,

    November 17, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

    BZ, if “second of all” makes sense, why not “last of all”?

  41. Jessica S said,

    November 18, 2014 @ 1:28 am

    As just an interested reader and not a linguist in any way I didn’t have anything to contribute until I saw the last posts by BZ and Levantine about “second of all.”
    I believe they are intensifiers. “First of all” makes sense in many circumstances because it is on top of the list where the list is “all” and would indicate being first is significance. It Similarly for “last of all” being the bottom of the list which would indicate the position is significant. But the “of all” for internal items is just too much verbiage and contributes nothing beyond what “second” or “third” would.
    If the order of the list was not meaningful, I doubt “of all” would be used by educated native English speakers.

  42. andrewjshields said,

    November 19, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    The Glowbe corpus has four instances of “firstable”: two from the US, one from Canada, and one from Singapore.

    Three of the four are uses of “firstable” for “first of all.” The fourth (one of the two from the US) is this:

    “I’ve had ESL students write ‘Firstable.'”

    Just FWIW, really.

  43. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 19, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    Paul McFedries turned up a “firstable” on the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.taiwan from 1991, here.

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