Syntactic wigs

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Bruce Rusk shared with me this photograph from a store in Vancouver’s Chinatown:

Although the lettering in the window is from Chinatown, it is Chinglish without Chinese.

"Syntactic Wigs" is such a bizarre locution that I thought this might be a one-off, but when I googled on it I found that the same malapropism has occurred repeatedly in a variety of contexts.

As I was thinking what a "syntactic wig" might be, I wondered why "syncretic wigs" — so far as I can tell — has never been recorded on the internet. Why this partiality for "syntactic wigs" over "syncretic wigs"? In a way, though, I'm glad that it was "syntactic wigs" rather than "syncretic wigs", because if it had been the latter, I probably never would have written about it on Language Log. "Syntactic wigs" is just so perfect for Language Log.

Ahh! The strangeness of language lapses!

[Update:  I just realized that "syntactic" sounds much closer to "synthetic" than "syncretic" does.]


  1. rpsms said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    If one (mis-) spells "synthetic" as "synthatic" and then misses the "h" key, a Word spell check offers "syntactic" as the only correction.

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    Surely we also have a problem with "real synthetic" as well, true?

  3. Andrew Bay said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    My problem with the format is that I read a corner of a window as a divider between columns. So I get Real Syntactic[Synthetic] | Hair Wigs. Is "Real Synthetic" driving home the point that it is fake? And Hair Wigs sounds redundant.


  4. John Lawler said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

    What store in Vancouver? Address?

  5. Matt Juge said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    As someone who works on irregularity in verb paradigms, I thought of "syncretic" as another (strange) possibility right away.

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

    Presumably the advert is to be read along the rows: real hair, synthetic wigs.

  7. Zizoz said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

    How does "syntactic" sound closer to "synthetic" than "syncretic" does? The latter sounds closer to me.

  8. Robot Therapist said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

    Ah, some antics!

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 4:48 pm

    I agree – both because of the vowel, and because the double consonant in 'syntactic' alters the rhythm slightly.

    I don't have any problem with 'hair wigs': I think the message should be read as 'Real Syntactic Hair Wigs', i.e. wigs made of syntactic hair. The force of 'real' is more of a problem, though; I take it that this means that these are real syntactic hair, rather than fakes, made of natural hair.

  10. Old Gobbo said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

    I would have thought that e.g. synethnic or syntechnic would be easier to confuse than syncretic, if it were a simple spelling / word check error. No, I think the true answer is that, as well as complete wigs, they do hair pieces, which fit in perfectly with the existing hair: and the word they were looking for was 'syntaxic'; but they just got confused with all those grammatical terms surrounding it.

  11. Bruce RUsk said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    John: You can see the storefront on Street View here (SE corner of Pender and Carrall). A little Google Maps archaeology reveals that the lettering was added between 2009 and 2012.

  12. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 6:01 pm

    What a great name for a band: The Syntactic Wigs.

  13. David Morris said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

    Instead of adding the Canadian Goods and Services Tax to the price, they'll have to add a Syntax instead.

  14. Ø said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

    Maybe they sell both real hair wigs and synthetic wigs. But they could have said so a bit more clearly.

  15. George Amis said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 7:43 pm

    I'm inclined to agree with Ø, above. I read the sign, more or less, as Real- [and] Synthetic- Hair Wigs. That is, wigs made of real hair and wigs made of synthetic hair.

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

    Or perhaps the wigs are synthetic, but the real hair is sold in some other form, e.g. extensions, buns, and other add-ons to one's own natural hair.

  17. Tim Leonard said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

    As for why it's syntactic rather than syncretic, there is the possibly relevant fact that syntactic is far more frequent, with fifteen times as many Ghits.

  18. Nancy Friedman said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

    Neal: For a hair band, of course.

  19. Marek said,

    October 17, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    If the author's native language didn't have dental fricatives (which it presumably didn't, seeing how few languages do in general), substituting 'th' for 't' would be much more natural than replacing it with 'cr'.

  20. Akito said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 1:24 am

    I read it as "Real- and Synthetic-Hair Wigs".

  21. maidhc said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 3:08 am

    I think Akito has the explanation. They sell both kinds of wigs. The real-hair ones are more expensive. They just got mixed up on the spelling of "synthetic".

    Neal Goldfarb: I think an even better band name would be "The Syntactic Whigs".

    The concept of "hair wig" makes me think of musical categories like "hair metal". Then again there's the beatnik concept of "wigging out". So a syntactic wig would be someone ranting about singular "they" or split infinitives. A syntactic hair wig would be a prescriptivist rant while wearing extensions. Some kind of new art form. Spinal Tap meets Strunk & White.

  22. Bill Benzon said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 6:21 am

    "Syntactic wigs" is probably one of those colorless green ideas that Chomsky wrote about early in his career.

  23. Doreen said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 9:33 am

    Could one don a syntactic merkin to conceal one's genitives?

  24. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

    We English speakers rarely think of how strange our 'th' consonant is to speakers of other languages. Offhand I can't think of more than three other languages in which it appears.

    Among people for whom English is a second language, pronouncing it as 't' is very common.

    Whoever made this sign most likely just spelled it as 't' and took the spelling reform offered.

  25. Faith said,

    October 18, 2014 @ 6:13 pm

    This store is smack dab in the middle of the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I seriously doubt there is a real hair wig to be found in it. There are some gentrifying businesses nearby, but this is old-school Chinatown family-owned store, and I am not thinking there are $500 wigs in there.

  26. David L. Gold said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 8:21 pm

    Since "syntactic" for "synthetic" appears, at first blush, to be a malapropism, a malapropism is, as one would expect, the substitution of a more familiar word for a less familiar word, rather than vice versa (in essence, a malapropism is a folk etymology), and anglophones knowing the word "syntactic" are a subset of those knowing the word "synthetic," maybe this is not a malapropism after all. Rather, it could be a misspelling of "synthetic" that happens to be a homograph of the word "syntactic."

  27. Colin Fine said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    To a speaker of a language with neither many consonant clusters, nor a 'th', 'synthetic' and 'syntactic' may be very nearly homophonous.
    Ray Dillinger: it's rare, but not that rare. In Europe: Welsh, Icelandic, Spanish, Greek, Albanian. Also, Arabic and I believe Turkmen.

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