Bomb-diffusing and detention with impugnity

« previous post | next post »

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish a spelling mistake from an eggcorn.  Either way, I've always been impressed by the possibilities for analytic creativity afforded by the English orthographic system. And somehow these little morpho-analogical poems are more impressive when they appears in serious publications.

Reader RA recently sent in this example from Peter Allen, "France evacuates 6,000 Parisians after unexploded World War Two bomb discovered", The Telegraph, 2/6/2011:

Military experts worked from around 8am to noon to diffuse it, with the all clear being given early in the afternoon. […]

A spokesman for the mayor's office in Boulogne said: "The bomb was originally found by builders carrying out work in late January, but experts have only been able to start diffusing it today. The area is now completely safe."

In addition to these two instances in the body of the article, the photo caption at the head of the article also uses "diffuse", so this was not a simple slip of the fingers.

Arnold Zwicky entered defuse/diffuse into the Eggcorn Database back in 2004, with the comment that

This eggcorn involves a metaphor shift: the problem or situation at hand likened a noxious substance that can be rendered harmless by scattering it about and thereby diluting it, instead of to a bomb that must be defused.

As of 2004/12/23, Google finds 18,400 hits for [_”diffuse the situation”_] This shows that the eggcorn is entering the mainstream, probably because the underlying analogy appears compelling to many.

The Telegraph's example is not metaphorical, but instead deals with literally defusing an actual bomb. So the metaphorical shift must have entered the mainstream so thoroughly that the result of the re-analysis (or at least its spelling) has diffused back to the original word.

I wonder whether Peter Allen and his editors think that defuse is spelled "diffuse" — which would hardly be the weirdest thing about English spelling — or whether they think that there's a figurative sense of diffuse that means to render a bomb harmless. Either way, it's impressive to see bomb-diffusing in the newspaper with the highest circulation among broadsheets in the UK.

An anonymous reader sent in this one from Stephen Smith, "America, Meet Omar Suleiman, the New 'Transitional' Man in Cairo", Reason 2/8/2011:

When the opposition Wafd Party asked Suleiman if he was considering lifting the decades-old state of emergency, which allows the government to arrest and detain with impugnity, the longtime intelligence chief responded incredulously, "At a time like this?"

This one isn't in the eggcorn database yet. And again, I'm not sure whether Mr. Smith thinks that impunity should be spelled "impugnity", or was simply led by normal typing-substitution processes to spell it that way, as opposed to thinking that impunity "exemption from penalty" is a nominalized form of  impugn "to assail, dispute, find fault with".

In favor of the latter (eggcorn) theory is the fact that the meaning would work given a negation more or less: thus an extra negation would tell us that impugnity might mean something like "the property of not being assailed, disputed, or faulted", which is within spitting distance of impunity. And there's neither any verbal form spelled "impune" nor any nominal form spelled "impugnity", so the paradigms are open to merger on both sides.

There are four other examples of "impugnity" on Reason's web site, in articles or blog posts by four different authors. However, there are hundreds of examples of "impunity", so that the more creative spelling can't be seen as a house style.

In any case, Smith is far from the first writer — or even the most distinguished one — to use this (spelling of this) word. Thus in David Mamet's The Wicked Son we find

To suggest that the rational thinker is exempted, either through identification with the aims of killers, or through a laudable withholding of judgment, posits a position of impugnity. This feeling of impugnity — as the terrorists have limited themselves neither geographically, nor to a degree of consanguinity — is madness.

There are five instances of "impugnity" in this book, showing that a local slip of the fingers was not the cause.

And Erving Goffman wrote in Interaction Ritual that

A fundamental trait of personal character from the point of view of social organization is integrity, meaning here the propensity to resist temptation in situation where there would be much profit and some impugnity in departing momentarily from moral standards.

In this case, the book contained no other instances of "impugnity", but two of "impunity", suggesting a typesetter's (perhaps eggcorn-influenced) slip of the fingers as the cause.

(I was interested to learn that  "impugnance" and "impugnation" do have whatever form of existence is granted to letter-sequences that can be found in the OED, though I'm pretty sure that I've never encountered either one. They're glossed as "The action of attacking or assaulting (a person); esp. spiritual assault, temptation", or "The action of impugning (an opinion, etc.); calling in question, disputing; impugnment".)


  1. Neil said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    The best thing about this is the thought of how puce in the face it will have sent the Telegraph's prescriptive-in-chief Simon Heffer

  2. Ian Preston said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Either way, it's impressive to see bomb-diffusing in the newspaper with the highest circulation among broadsheets in the UK.

    Simon Heffer will be delighted.

  3. dw said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    Either way, it's impressive to see bomb-diffusing in the newspaper with the highest circulation among broadsheets in the UK.

    My sense is that homophony between "defuse" and "diffuse" is more likely in England than the US. This would be found in, for example, old-fashioned RP accents where the happY vowel is realized [ɪ].

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:21 am

    There is a longstanding axiom among academic types that the word as printed is exactly what the writer intended to be printed. This is a convenient simplifying assumption, because scholars can all follow the same rule and avoid spending a lot of time investigating meaningless minutiae. However, it ignores the real-world messiness of getting thoughts into published form, a very noisy process that involves many hands and many not always infallibly attentive brains.

    On the one hand, it's the error production that's interesting (and that seems to be the main theme of this post and many others), because it provides insight into the way the brain works. On the other hand, it always makes me uncomfortable when a specific error is ascribed to a specific individual.

    Yes, formally, Mamet, Goffman, and the others quotes are responsible for what gets printed under their bylines. But I have no confidence that the cited eggcorns or other errors were produced by the authors they are ascribed to.

    [(myl) Since the cited edition of Interaction Ritual has just one "impugnity" and two "impunity", and Goffman's others works have only "impunity", I suggested treated the cited example as a typesetter's slip. But the cited Mamet work has five "impugnity" and no "impunity", and "impugnity" occurs in another of his works as well, so I'm more inclined to think that the spelling is the author's in that case.]

  5. Steve Kass said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    The suffix -ity, unlike -ance or -ment, doesn‘t make sense after a verb stem, and I couldn‘t find any examples with etymology verb+-[I]TY suffix in the OED (at least not beginning with a, b, or c).

    [(myl) Good point. As I would have recalled if I'd been paying attention, -ity generally attaches to adjectives, as in sublime/sublimity. Of course, the adjective impune is so rare as to be essentially non-existent, which helps explain (but doesn't excuse) my lapse.

    The OED does note that -ity has gone through some periods of morphological promiscuity:

    Hence such formations as egoity, with playful or pedantic nonce-words of English formation, as between-ity, coxcomb-ity, cuppe-ity, table-ity, threadbar-ity, woman-ity (after humani-ty), youthfull-ity.

    but verb stems are not listed among its hook-ups.]

    Whether or not the eggcorn theory explains the initial act of misspelling impunity as impugnity, it likely explains why some writers and editors fail to catch and correct this misspelling. Presumably impugnity would not be a homophone of impunity (cf. oppugnant, impugnation); it would surprise me if anyone who wrote impugnity would have intended /ɪm.ˈpʌg.nə.tɪ/.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    It's perhaps worth noting, for those like me who didn't know it, that diffuse as a verb, unlike the adjective, is pronounced with a voiced s (z sound), same as difuse. Or so the dictionary tells me. Thus making the two verbs homophones or close. I don't know that I've ever come across that as a verb.

    [(myl) Also use/use, excuse/excuse, abuse/abuse, house/house, and refuse/refuse (if you consider those to be the noun and verb versions of the same word). The set used to be larger, apparently.]

  7. Steve Kass said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    The OED entry for diffuse (but curiously, not the entry for defuse) indicates that defuse meant diffuse long before it meant de-fuse.

  8. KevinM said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    Add to that the vexed fuse/fuze distinction or nondistinction, and you've got a real mess. Most commonly, what we envision as defusing probably involves a fuze (a mechanical or electronic device for setting off detonation), rather than a fuse (a combustible string or wick, as on a firecracker or cartoon bomb). But the distinction is, as I say, vexed, and many (esp. outside the military) seem to regard the two as synonyms. Check out the debate and sources cited on wiki, for example.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

    Impunity seems to go back to Latin "poena" (= "punishment") while its rival impugnity would come from "pugnus" (= "fist"). Of course, fists can be used as instruments of punishment, and it would be beneficial to have impunity from being pummelled (apparently not related etymologically to either of the foregoing).

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 12:34 pm


    I don't think an 'old-fashioned RP speaker" who has [ɪ] for the final vowel of "happy"' would be particularly likely to confuse "defuse" and "diffuse."

    I'm exactly such a speaker, and I pronounce the first vowel of "defuse" just like the vowel (well, diphthong) of "bee"; first vowel of "diffuse" as the aforesaid [ɪ].

    Same for all such transparent formations, in fact: debug, defenestrate, detox … but not e.g. defame, deface which do indeed have [ɪ]. Indeed my pronunciation would contrast

    'defame' ('slander') with a nonce-formation 'de-fame' ('remove the fame from.')

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    Re Mamet, google books shows a 2000 edition of Boston Marriage (by "Dramatists Play Service Inc.," presumably aimed at performers rather than a mass audience?) which has "impunity" where the 2002 edition has "impugnity." That 2002 edition is put out by Vintage, a Random House imprint. The Wicked Son was put out by Schocken, another Random House imprint. So I don't think we can rule out the possibility of "impugnity" coming not from Mamet but from someone involved in the editing process at Random House. I have no idea whether Mamet's the sort of author who reads galleys so closely that he should be deemed to have affirmatively blessed spelling changes introduced at the publisher, if that's in fact what happened.

    [(myl) OK, maybe there's a Random House editor who's into impugnity.]

  12. Boris said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    What's interesting to me is that I would much more readily use impunity and defuse than impugn and diffuse in regular speech. I don't think these are true eggcorns, rather it's more like "I don't know how to spell this word, so I'll spell it like this other word that sounds similar. Neither spelling has transparent meaning to me, so unless the writers are coming from a field where those words are used a lot (lawyers and physicists respectively maybe) I would think an eggcorn like this is unlikely.

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    Following what dw said, I've noticed words like defuse/diffuse that have (always unstressed) /ɨ/ (or schwa in Australia) are particularly prone to being misspelt.

    For instance, rediculous gets 2,020,000 Google hits, whereas redicule, with a stressed /ɪ/, gets only 28,400.

    Ridundant, though, only gets 684 hits, which I assume is because there are many more re- words than ri- so the attraction is that way: dimented gets a lot more (73,900), presumably because there are a fair few di- words around to serve as models.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    Sorry, that's against 3,970,000 for demented and 18,200,000 for redundant.

    demented 3,970,000
    dimented 73,900
    redundant 18,200,000
    ridundant 684

  15. Xmun said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    The silly notion that most words in English have and should have only one correct spelling needs to get a bit of a knock now and then, and this example is rather a nice one. O for the comparative lawlessness of Elizabethan spelling!

  16. Tom Recht said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

    "Impugnity" doesn't even need an extra negation if you think that the im- is itself a negative prefix, and connect "-pugnity" with "pugnacious": it could then quite naturally be taken to mean "the property of not being attacked".

  17. Picky said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    The term "broadsheet" is probably best avoided nowadays except as a technical term. What's meant here is "quality newspaper" however you may define that. The wiki linked article says "broadsheets and former broadsheets" but that's not true, either. The Daily Mail, for instance, is a former broadsheet and so, help us, is The Sun.

  18. Bob Lieblich said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    I'm having trouble communicating with the Eggcorn Database, so I'm taking the liberty of posting here about yet another eggcorn, one that isn't on their list yet. I'm sure someone else can send it in. Here 'tis:

    "The twelve men who walked on the Moon are heroes. I have no doubt in my mind about that: the risks they took to stand on the surface of another world were fiercesome …"

    It appears in the "Bad Astronomy" blog in the very first paragraph of this post:

    Well, I like it.

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    One of the many wonderful bits of wordplay in the great comic strip "Pogo" was a character (possibly Albert the Alligator) asking another, "Are you impugning my impunity?"

  20. John Lawler said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    Probably all theories are true, for at least some people.
    One that appears not to have been mentioned explictly so far is that anyone infested with even small Latin and the habit of root-identification can see in-pugna and in-poena hiding there, and "No attack" is way inside spitting distance of "no punishment"; I'd be thinking about different body fluids entirely. So one is as good as the other and can be remembered just as well or better, so it pops up sometimes, when prompted by contextual stimuli. And occasionally becomes a personal norm.

  21. dw said,

    February 9, 2011 @ 7:49 pm


    Some of us would object strongly to the notion that the Telegraph of today is a "quality" newspaper. Over the last year or so it seems to have tried to position itself as the UK's answer to Fox News, while using journalistic techniques more associated with the News of the World / National Enquirer than traditional broadsheets.

  22. Picky said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:45 am

    I'm not going to disagree too strongly with you, dw. I did qualify the word, and in any case I was not giving my own opinion of the Telegraph, but trying to encapsulate what Prof Liberman may have meant by "broadsheet".

    My own view is that while it is true that the Telegraph seems to have been trying on the Daily Mail's clothes I can still tell the difference.

  23. Mark F. said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    Xmun – It certainly is the case that most (as in all but a tiny fraction of) English words have only one correct spelling. And I think it's pretty clear that it should be that way, too. Spelling variation is a distraction both when reading and writing.

  24. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

    Marginally relevant to this and other threads on LL: Mark Haines on Squawkbox (2/10/2011) wondered if Mubarak's leaving would "defuse protesters." He clear did not say diffuse. Although, protesters might disperse, a process that is also called diffusion (on some Wikipedia pages).

  25. Hermann Burchard said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 3:38 pm


  26. Xmun said,

    February 11, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    Mark F: We cope with an extraordinarily wide range of variations in speech more or less successfully. I don't see why we shouldn't be able to do the same to rather a greater degree than in fact we do in the printed media. But this is just a pipe dream. I agree with you that in fact everybody enjoys the benefits of minimal variation in the printed language, whether you are reading a newspaper published in Madras or Melbourne or Manchester or Montreal or Mombasa.

  27. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 12:21 am

    It is possible that "diffuse" for "defuse" is the result of a slip of the finger. When I was laying out newspaper pages in Quark, it was possible to run a spellcheck on the entire page and do a change-all command for spelling errors. The spell checker would look at everything on the page, including photo captions, page numbers, headlines, and body text (but not the advertisements, which were art files and not text files).

    While it is possible, that doesn't mean it was accidental. I think of defuse-diffuse as a common error editors have to watch for.

  28. Kem Luther said,

    February 12, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    Updating "impugn/impune" on the Eggcorn Forum:

  29. JSK said,

    February 14, 2011 @ 8:04 am

    I just watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 2002, with closed captions on, and they "diffuse"-d a bomb.

  30. Read Weaver said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    My favorite:

RSS feed for comments on this post