China reigns

« previous post | next post »

Headline from the China Daily:

"China reigns in brutal police tactics" (9/9/03)

This hilarious misspelling causes China's widest circulating English-language newspaper accidentally to have a true headline.

I'm not sure what category of error this should be classified under.  It's not a malapropism, which results in nonsense.  Nor do I think it is an eggcorn, because the writer doesn't actually think the correct word is "reign".  Perhaps we may refer to it as an unintended pun.

[Thanks to Don Clarke]



23 Comments

  1. K Chang said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 1:42 am

    It's more like "unintended honesty"

  2. Justin said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 3:02 am

    I vote for "homophonic irony".

  3. Benedikt said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 3:03 am

    … or a Freudian slip.

  4. Hans said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 4:04 am

    Wouldn't that count as "Freudian slip"?

  5. Keith said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 4:04 am

    How about lapsus clavis?

  6. chris said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 5:39 am

    Nor do I think it is an eggcorn, because the writer doesn't actually think the correct word is "reign"

    Are you suggesting that the writer did this deliberately as a subversive message?

    I think it's pretty likely they *did* think the correct word is "reign", for the same reason native English speakers make the same mistake — "rein" is an obscure word that few people know anymore, unless they are horse hobbyists themselves, or historians, or fans of historical fiction, or something like that.

    There's no reason a non-native shouldn't follow the same logic connecting the sense of "reign" to an idiom that is essentially about commanding someone (specifically a horse, in the original) to stop/reduce something they are doing.

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 6:20 am

    I've seen this mistake a lot, especially in sports articles on the Internet.

  8. John Roth said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 6:33 am

    Yup, it's a pretty standard eggcorn. See http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/english/34/reign/

    I'm not sure why you'd think the headline writer actually meant the malapropism.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 9:00 am

    First some data, then some references, and finally a couple of replies.

    rein 120,000,000 ghits

    reins 24,000,000

    reined 920,000

    reining 4,620,000

    "rein in" 5,820,000

    "reins in" 457,000

    "reining in" 524,000

    "reined in" 456,000

    reign 120,000,000

    reigns 29,800,000

    reigned 8,510,000

    reigning 16,400,000

    "reign in" 5,020,000

    "reigns in" 898,000

    "reigned in" 487,000

    "reigning in" 417,000

    "Rein" is not at all an obscure word. "Reign" is often confused for "rein" and vice versa. There are many websites dealing with this problem, e.g.:

    "Rein or reign? Hold your horses before applying pen to paper…" (3/26/12)

    http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/03/rein-or-reign/

    "Reign, Rein, and Rain" (5/6/14)

    http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/reign-rein-and-rain

    Reign, Rein, and Rain
    "Reign vs. Rein"

    (8/17/20)

    http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/questions-and-quandaries/grammar/reign-vs-rein

    @Chris

    "Are you suggesting that the writer did this deliberately as a subversive message?"

    No, I said it was unintentional.

    @John Roth

    "I'm not sure why you'd think the headline writer actually meant the malapropism."

    Neither do I think that this was a malapropism nor do I think that the writer consciously intended to say "reigns".

  10. Adrian said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 9:02 am

    John: Yes, rein>reign is often an eggcorn, but often (as in this case) it is a simple misspelling.

  11. Michael Johnson said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    One further possibility is just that the author recognized that there is a noun/ verb 'reign' (with the standard meaning), but that there was another unrelated noun/ verb, which we'd spell 'rein', but the author thought was spelled 'reign'.

    I suggest this possibility because, though I know what 'reining in' means, and the metaphor it invokes, I'm not sure I wouldn't have spelled it 'reigning in' and 'take the reigns'.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    I don't know that I've seen "reign in" very often, but "free reign" is ubiquitous.

  13. KevinM said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 11:28 am

    "China rules in brutal police tactics" … or at least it hasn't ruled them out.

    The "reign" substitution is natural, I think, because people generally associate reigning with mastery. So free reign, or reigning in, doesn't jar.

  14. Hiroshi said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    @Ralph Hickok
    I've seen "reigns/reigning in xxx" quite a lot in sports articles as well, but I always thought that's correct usage ("reign" used in the same sense as in "the reigning champion").

    As to categorizing the mistake in the China Daily article… To me it's just a special case of malapropism, as only in this particular context the sentence happens to make a lot of sense.

  15. Eric P Smith said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

    I agree with Victor that the mistake is neither a malapropism nor an eggcorn. It is a mis-spelling caused by a confusion between homonyms. I think we need a word for this kind of error. Can I suggest that it should be called a houyhnhnm? The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent horses in Gulliver's Travels, and it has been suggested (for example here) that part of the significance of the name is that Houyhnhnm is a homonym of homonym.

  16. Steve Morrison said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 7:53 pm

    It reminds me of what Richard Lederer in his Anguished English calls a "bienapropism"; e.g. "We were strong and virulent in the early sixties" or "the automobile has had a beneficiary effect on the American family". In other words, a malapropism which nonetheless tells an unintended truth.

  17. Jeff W said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

    @Michael Johnson

    …there was another unrelated noun/ verb, which we'd spell 'rein', but the author thought was spelled 'reign'.

    That's how I saw it also—or, to make a rather arcane typographic distinction (which, who knows, might work): the headline writer thought the spelling of the word was "reign" but he was referring to rein and not reign.

    @Eric P Smith

    It is a mis-spelling caused by a confusion between homonyms…Can I suggest that it should be called a houyhnhnm?

    I like the suggested name except…isn't it a confusion between homophones or maybe, more specifically, heterographic homophones? (I thought homonyms had to have the same spelling.)

    Examples like these (which seem to be intentional) don't qualify, I guess:

    When she saw her first strands of gray hair, she thought she'd dye.
    Atheism is non-prophet organization.
    Dogs' feet give Japan scientists paws for thought.

  18. Joshua said,

    July 16, 2015 @ 11:00 pm

    I saw an article once about a college student who received an award for helping "diffuse racial tensions." I believed at the time that the student was undeserving of the award but the article was inadvertently accurate, because the student had been "diffusing" racial tensions by spreading them around, rather than "defusing" racial tensions.

  19. D.O. said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 1:05 am

    As Sergey Dovlatov wrote, in Soviet press only typos were truthful.

  20. David Moser said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 2:55 am

    Reminds me of a remark made by one of my students in class:

    "For the Chinese leaders, dealing with Xinjiang must be sheer torture."

    "That's certainly how they see the solution," I said.

  21. Eric P Smith said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    @Jeff W

    Ouch! Yes, I was careless. "Homonym" can mean homophone, but not in the best of circles.

  22. Bob Ladd said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    The words may be homophones, but the phrases are not. The unintended meaning has a pretty substantial prosodic boundary after reigns, whereas the intended meaning treats reins in as a prosodic group of some sort.

  23. Jeff W said,

    July 17, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

    Eric P Smith

    Ouch! Yes, I was careless. "Homonym" can mean homophone, but not in the best of circles.

    Oh, no, I'd say that the delightfulness of the suggestion understandably prevailed in the moment over the technical definition.

    And houyhnhnm itself is a homophone (to the extent it is) of homonym so the situation really is a little misleading and the word doesn't quite work as a self-referential pun, if that's what was intended. If anyone was careless, it was Jonathan Swift who maybe should have called the horses houyhfhnn or something.

    I wouldn't have mentioned it except that the aspect of spelling seemed relevant: there's a difference between (going off of David Moser's comment in an entirely different way) Wearing nylons is sheer torture (a homonymic pun) and Getting lambswool is shear torture (a homophonic pun).*

    *For illustrative purposes only, not for humor (obviously).

RSS feed for comments on this post