Disconcerting customers at Egbert's

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"Egbert's, a custom car shop at this location since 1992, specializes in restoring and building unique cars to disconcerting customers", says the website for Egbert's, a company that designs and restores hotrods and collectible cars for street use. I am quite sure that by "to" they meant "for". And although perhaps some of the tattooed customers who bring in muscle cars to have skull motifs or gang insignia incorporated into the paintwork may be a bit disconcerting, surely they must have meant that they restore and build cars for discerning customers.

The question posed by Bob Ladd, who sent me the link, is about the etiology of the error: was it a cupertino or an eggcorn? (For newcomers to Language Log: A cupertino is a lexical error caused by unwisely trusting your word processor's spell-checker when it suggests a suitable word as an alternative to what you typed — as when you type *incect-infested and your spell-checker suggests incest-infected and you accept the correction although you actually meant insect-infested. An eggcorn is a lexical error that happens when you misanalyze a word that you have heard and your error becomes apparent only when you write down the word the way you think it is spelled — as when you hear people saying "and her ilk" to mean "and people like her" and you think they are saying "and her elk".)

It's hard to be sure. In a case like this I think the best plan is actually to go to the person who wrote the prose and very tactfully raise the question. Egbert's is in Edmonton, Alberta, at 11631 – 154 Street. Could some Language Log reader in Edmonton get over there and do the necessary tactful interview, please?



51 Comments

  1. Ray Girvan said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    … and suggest they fire their web designer too. Among other things, white text on a white background isn't exactly the best way to highlight your contact address.

    [I noticed an apparent blank contact page. But Ray is right, all the text is there. The person writing the HTML has put "<font face="Times New Roman" size="3" color="#FFFFFF"> in the code, as you can see by viewing the source. I find it easier to believe that someone might put a word choice error on their web page when it is as badly coded a web page as this. —GKP]

  2. Rubrick said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    The background is a red gradient in my browser.

  3. Adam said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 8:15 am

    This could have also been a straight thinko; easy enough when halfway through a word and momentarily distracted to complete it the wrong way. (While re-reading this brief comment I found I'd initially put "disrupted" for "distracted")

  4. Graeme said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 8:54 am

    Perhaps 'dis' the prefix is losing ground to 'dis' the verb?

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    Whatever the source of error — and isn't a good old-fashioned malapropism one of the possibilities as well? — it's happened more than once. Thus Cattermoles Garage, Ipswich, explains that

    Being authorised agents for Webasto UK Ltd, our full range of roofs can be viewed at http://www.open-air-feeling.com, but for the more disconcerting customer please call us and we can discuss the suitability of our range of sun roofs for your vehicle and send out all information required.

    And Stuart Harrison Windows Ltd ("Doors – Make Your Own Statement…!") tells us that

    For the disconcerting customer, who wants to add more than just new windows and doors to their home KOMMERLING Connoisseur GOLD range provides the perfect solution – impressive design without compromise.

    That example suggests that the author might perhaps have in mind a non-standard extended meaning for disconcerting, namely "wanting to impress (i.e. disconcert) others".

    Leaving the other "disconcerting customers" to our many disconcerting commenters, I'll also point out the range of "disconcerting collectors" that is available. Thus Crystal World and Mineral Journeys, in Victoria, Australia, asserts that

    Through our huge warehouse, our large specialised retail facilities and our various stands at trade shows throughout the world, we bring you an incredible range of specialty products to suit the simplest of collectors to the most disconcerting collector.

  6. Tom Saylor said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    I have a question about the nature of this posting. Is it prescriptivist? I realize that GKP doesn't actually prescribe usage anywhere in the post, but he does characterize the advertiser's use of 'disconcerting' (instead of 'discerning') as an error. Is this essentially different from what a Fowler, Safire, or Simon does in pointing out the error of confusing 'flaunt' with 'flout' or 'disinterested' with 'uninterested' or 'exacerbated' with 'exasperated'? If so, how?

    [(myl) A good question. For a partial answer, see "'Everything is correct' vs. 'Nothing is relevant'", 1/26/2005; or "Public Service Announcement: Wedding Vows are not Wedding Vowels", 1/6/2004.]

    [Hey, you guys, no need to talk about me in the third person like this when I'm right here. Let me answer the question: No, the post had no prescriptivist intent — I could have emailed Egbert's to recommend that they change their wording, and that would have been prescriptive (though perfectly polite and helpful, not bossy), but instead I wondered about the etiology and classification of what I took to be a clear and plangent error. Now, given the evidence about disconcerting rapidly assembled here by my commenters, evidence which has surprised me greatly, I am prepared to consider a motion to the effect that there is now a widespread dialectal use of disconcerting to mean "discerning" or "discriminating" (though I had never encountered this usage before, and nor had Bob Ladd, and I admit to finding it disconcerting). That would mean there was no error at all, but just a dialect difference (some dialects have disconcerting = "discerning", though mine lacks this meaning for that word). Mark Liberman is quite right to point to my 'Everything is correct' vs. 'Nothing is relevant'" in this connection: I have had trouble on many previous occasions with convincing people that a descriptive linguist can consistently hold the view that grammatical and lexical mistakes do occur. I also agree with Mark that the error in this case (if it is an error) is quite likely a classical malapropism; I don't think the eggcorn idea is plausible at all, I have decided. But later in this series of comments (scroll down nine or ten comments) you will find that Ben Zimmer has hypothesized that it's not a malapropism but rather a cupertino. Notice, in principle, this is an empirical issue. —GKP]

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    Rubrick: The background is a red gradient in my browser

    Firefox doesn't see the one at the foot. The problem is that they have multiple BODY sections in the page: bad HTML, and luck-of-the-draw what browsers will make of it. My guess is it wasn't professionally done, whch would explain the cupertino/eggcorn as well.

  8. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    A Google search for "disconcerting customer" draws 203 entries – a scan of the first page looks like about half of them are the same error. To me it just looks like a manual laborer trying to use big words out of fear that his copy won't sound as eloquent as the other ads, thereby missing the point that you don't necessarily want your mechanic to imitate a philologist.

    As for those of you questioning whether this is prescriptivist and therefore bad – do you already have your Chi-tonw tattoo? Egbert can build my car but any decals will go elsewhere for design.

  9. Dan T. said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Yes, that web page has two HEAD and two BODY elements. One of the bodies specifies a white background while the other doesn't specify any background color, leaving the browser to its default (usually white in current-day browsers, but an ugly grey in older ones). I'm not sure where any browser gets a red gradient background. Something that some sites do which screws up backgrounds is to have a graphic as the background, but not specify a compatible plain-color background along with it, so that if the graphic fails to load, or takes a long time to load, you see the text against a default background color which is sometimes not readable. Web designers who do stuff like that ought to be taken out and shot. (Is that "web rage" to go along with "word rage"?)

  10. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    English Car Mechanic:

    Being authorised agents for Webasto UK Ltd, our full range of roofs can be viewed at http://www.open-air-feeling.com, but for the more disconcerting customer please call us and we can discuss the suitability of our range of sun roofs for your vehicle and send out all information required.

    English Glaziers:

    For the disconcerting customer, who wants to add more than just new windows and doors to their home KOMMERLING Connoisseur GOLD range provides the perfect solution – impressive design without compromise.

    Apparently Canadian Videogame Reviewer:

    The news leaked via premier American retail chain, Best Buy, who sent all disconcerting customer who pre-ordered the first-rate title an email informing them of the ultimately unfavourable news.

    Australian Motorcycle Dealer: (at the About page)

    In 1978, Ross Chapman purchased the business for his father Lloyd. Ross was then responsible for introducing fresh ideas and products, lifting the business to a new level known today. It is now a well rounded business based on the use of modem technology, experience gained from his father, and a range of products that will satisfy the most disconcerting customer.

    Apparently German Hotelier: (Appears to be translation-in-progress)

    The rooms have different characteristics, all of them equipped to satisfy the most disconcerting customer. We'd like to point out the Presidential suite with it's private swimming pool.

    English Arms Dealer:

    1 J R , Rifle Sling – Cobra Thumbhole Deluxe, Deluxe Green or Brown leather sling. Padded Suede. Adjustable from 35 to 39 inches. Quality sling for the disconcerting customer.,

    English Life Coach

    http://74.125.93.132/search?q=cache:tLWVnkLnBpAJ:www.talarms.co.uk/acatalog/Online_Catalogue_Rifle_and_Airgun_Slings_159.html+"disconcerting+customer"&cd=10&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

  11. Amy Stoller said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    "To me it just looks like a manual laborer trying to use big words … "

    Forgive me, but that is rank snobbery at its worst. I know plenty of manual laborers whose command of English is excellent, and a surprising number of college students and college graduates who use big words that they don't understand. You may not want your mechanic to sound like a philologist, but if she does, what's it to you?

    I do, however, think that there is a difference between the meanings of the words discerning and disconcerting, and that to say so is not prescriptivist. And I very much doubt that the user in this case meant "wanting to disconcert others."

    In my book, a malapropism.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    Amy Stoller: I know plenty of manual laborers whose command of English is excellent, and a surprising number of college students and college graduates who use big words that they don't understand.

    Amy is absolutely right. Anyone who grades college students' essays sees many malapropisms of this kind, where the author has learned or remembered a word as if it were another one with a somewhat similar shape but a very different meaning. In fact, I'd speculate that essentially every educated person has several of these mistakes lurking somewhere in their mental lexicon.

    Similar symptoms can be evoked by the kind of speech error that is also often called a malapropism, where the speaker (or writer) knows perfectly well that the word is wrong, but still produces it by mistake.

    And in other cases, ill-advised thesaurusizing is at fault.

    But in all cases, John 8:3-11 is relevant.

  13. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 11:28 am

    Call it snobbery if you want; I call it different skill sets. Americans get so touchy when you address social class. The underlying assumption is that a working class person, viewed as such, is being denigrated. If you think about that, it's about the most insulting possible thing that can be applied. In my experience, manual laborers appreciate craftsmanship and would agree that a job involving words should use them correctly.

    Whatever value you place on it, the assertion holds up in light of the (admittedly limited) evidence. If you follow the link to the Google search, the majority of the errors are websites for working-class services: construction and vehicle mechanics, etc. There is also a video game reviewer, a life coach, and a hotelier. I tried to post a list of them with quotes but there's some kind of spam filter that blocked my comment from being posted.

  14. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Since the proprietor of the blog has now agreed – without citing evidence – with the woman who claims that we should expect the writing of manual laborers to match the same standards of writing by people with more formal education in the use of language, I'd be interested if a better experiment can be designed that tests this theory. The underlying premise is that all education in the use of language is for naught.

    [(myl) Actually, I agreed with her that college students and college-educated people are also quite likely to commit malapropisms of this kind. For this, I can assure you, I have plenty of evidence!

    My experience with the writing styles of mechanics is less recent, but I did work as a mechanic for a couple of years in the U.S. Army, and for about a year afterwards, and I don't recall very many malapropisms either in the speech or the writing of my colleagues.

    With respect to the overall role of socio-economic status, a plausible prediction would be that this particular sort of malapropism can be caused by reaching for a vocabulary register the speaker or writer doesn't quite control, and would be more likely (for example) when the owner of a car-repair shop is trying to write for a posh audience, or when an undergraduate is trying to impress a professor. Something similar probably happens in the other direction, e.g. where suburban kids try to use inner-city slang.]

    Meanwhile, I will continue to not hire my accountant to fix the brakes on my truck. Because the value of a manual laborer's knowledge – in the proper context – is something I recognize more accurately than some, apparently.

  15. Jan Freeman said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    My first (mental) correction for the "disconcerting customers" quote was not "discerning" but "discriminating." Haven't time to check, but I'll bet "discriminating customers" are as common out there as "discerning" ones, so maybe it's a blend?

  16. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Here's my conjecture: disconcerting is, in at least some of these cases, a Cupertino miscorrection of disconcerning. (Paul Brians lists disconcerning for discerning as a common error.)

  17. Mark Liberman said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    For whatever reason, "disconcerning customers" seem to be less common than "disconcerting customers". But there are a few out there:

    For those disconcerning customers who fashion labels do not appeal to, we also sell non branded labels due to their uniqueness and style of the outfit.

    Raven Painting was established by Carl Robson in 2004 to provide disconcerning customers with showcase standard miniature figures.

    Google finds no "disconcerning collectors" at all. A few other random instances of "disconcerning" used to mean "discerning":

    The finest canoes, kayaks, and gear for disconcerning paddlers.
    You didn't miss much, really; it was just PG'd up for a more disconcerning audience.

    But overall these seem much less common than the examples of "disconcerting" for "discerning". And most instances of "disconcerning" seem to be typos for "disconcerting".

  18. language hat said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    Americans get so touchy when you address social class.

    Especially when you imply that the lower classes are ignorant. Odd, that.

    [(myl) Yes, our backs is easy ris.]

  19. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    I think this is probably the most useful thing said so far: (from myl)

    [I theorize that] this particular sort of malapropism can be caused by reaching for a vocabulary register the speaker or writer doesn't quite control, and would be more likely (for example) when the owner of a car-repair shop is trying to write for a posh audience, or when an undergraduate is trying to impress a professor.

    In other words, when a person from Linguistic Community A is trying to favorably impress someone from Linguistic Community B, the A speaker's ignorance of B usage may result in utterances that no community views as correct.

    What's interesting to me is that an assertion that suburban kids are largely ignorant of inner-city slang doesn't bring out the Amy Stollers, Mark Liebermans, and Language Hats of the world to angrily defend the basic human decency of the suburban kid, with strenuous objections to perceiving them as ignorant. But God forbid I suggest that manual laborers probably shouldn't write their own advertising copy, especially for posh products, and people freak out that the manual laborer is being denigrated. Try turning that pair of reactions on its head and think again who is being denigrated, starting with the observation of who perceives whom to need some extra defense.

  20. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    @myl: And most instances of "disconcerning" seem to be typos for "disconcerting".

    More likely a malapropism for disconcerting, I think. Exhibit A is the fact that there's an entry for disconcerning on Wordnik.

    And for further evidence that disconcerning can be a malapropism for discern, there's this definition of common sense from the Urban Dictionary:

    A personality trait that allows a person to disconcern the obvious from what they see or do.

    But so far everyone is missing the forest for the trees. What we may well be dealing with is a malapropism wrapped in a cupertino. This may be a first in the annals of linguistics!

    And this isn't just some oddball piece of data. It has theoretical implications: the process of making word-choice errors is recursive! Think about what this means:

    EgcP = Eggcorn phrase
    MalP = Malapropism phrase
    CupP = Cupertino phrase
    ErrP = Error phrase (a functional head projected by each of the foregoing)

    There is of course, many details that remain to be worked out, such as developing theories of eggcorn-raising and cupertino-extraction.

  21. Neal Goldfarb said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    @Neal Goldfarb: "There is of course, many details that remain to be worked out"

    Hey, moron, next time use the grammar-checker.

  22. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    We mustn't neglect the "disconcerting client" or the "disconcerting purchaser." On that last, I found a discussion at the BBC. For some reason the link is tweaky in the preview but here goes: Link

  23. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    @Neal G.: What we may well be dealing with is a malapropism wrapped in a cupertino. This may be a first in the annals of linguistics!

    I'll have to rummage through the cupertino archives to see if we've come across something similar before. I do recall a cupertino eggcorn, but that's a bit different — the result of the miscorrection is serendipitously eggcornic (high flatuent language). (And we've encountered another hybrid beast, the mondeggcorn.)

    [After rummaging… here's an eggcorn wrapped in a cupertino: amateur misspelled as amature and cupertino-ized into armature. (LL, ECDB)]

  24. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    The "disconcerting buyer" seems focused on English real estate and wool from New Zealand. There's a definite trend toward England and majority-white Commonwealth nations in the examples of disconcerting transactors. To untangle the source or intention of the authors, we could look at advertising copy from the same nations for similar phrasing, like "discerning customers" or "discriminating customers." It seems likely that the authors are attempting to imitate something they have seen elsewhere, although at this point there are so many examples of sellers who are disconcerted by their clientele that any particular example may have copied the phrase perfectly from someone else.

  25. Stuart F said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    This reminds me of a bar that used to advertise "birthdays, weddings, funerals, catered for respectively".

    Mistakes like this seem to result from an attempt to reproduce a standard form of words, such as "discerning customers" or "funerals catered for respectfully", and slightly mis-remembering it. I assume few people in their day-to-day lives would answer "How was your lunch?" with "Respectful". You could perhaps imagine a car salesman going "I can see you're a very discerning customer", but it's still not a natural choice of word for most people. In both cases, it's language you wouldn't hear outside a particular setting (advertising or sales), and not a terribly meaningful formulation either (will they refuse to serve undiscerning customers?).

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    Some of the seven links below aren't previewing. Let's see whether they work.

    disconcerting traveler

    disconcerting traveller

    disconcerting reader

    disconcerting viewer

    (That's the only Google hit I'm sure is relevant, but here are one that may attribute it to others as an error and another that definitely does.

    disconcertimg listener

  27. Brian said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 4:23 pm

    I also thought there was a class distinction to be made, but it was simply that folks in lower economic classes were less likely to be able to afford professional web designers.

    (Though myl's comment about reaching for an unfamiliar vocabulary register also seems relevant.)

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    It's interesting if the "disconcerting" usage appears to be a Commonwealth one including Canada, at least if my general impression is correct that on most non-orthographic issues Canada tends to align more with AmE than BrE, even when Aus/NZ/etc. align with BrE. However, because Canadians tend to follow BrE over AmE for spelling, that does tend to suggest that they might typically be using a BrE or "Commonwealth" edition of a spellchecker, so maybe the apparent geographical distribution makes a Cupertino explanation more likely — especially if anyone could identify a situation where the Commonwealth version of Microsoft Word would suggest "disconcerting" but the U.S. version wouldn't.

  29. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    It reminds me of the apartment ads I saw in Australia that mentioned they were in "one of the most sort-after locations". This has to just be an eggcorn, because I believe in Australian English "sought" and "sort" are homophones (or at any rate, much closer than they are in American English). But it was a very common one – I think I saw "sort-after" far more than I saw "sought-after", but it's also possible that I only noticed the incorrect ones.

  30. codeman38 said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    Actually, the real reason why there's a background in some browsers but not others on Egbert's contact page has nothing to do with the multiple body tags, and everything to do with another HTML gaffe.

    The background for the table in which the address appears is defined as "scripts\header2.jpg". The problem is, they're running the Apache web server, on which the path separator is a forward slash, not a backslash. Some web browsers correct for this and convert the backslash into a forward slash before passing the request on to the server; however, Firefox passes it verbatim, and the server can't find the request file.

  31. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    @Kenny E.: See the Eggcorn Database for more on sort after.

  32. codeman38 said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    (Clarification of the above: the problem isn't specifically Apache, but the fact that the standard path separator for web servers is a forward slash. However, some versions of Internet Information Server do allow the use of backslashes as an alternative separator.)

  33. Rick Robinson said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Perhaps 'discerning' itself is less used in US English, hence fewer variants or errors in US sources? The phrase 'discerning customer' strikes my 'Murrican ear as having a slightly British flavor.

  34. Franz Bebop said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    @Neal: What we may well be dealing with is a malapropism wrapped in a cupertino. This may be a first in the annals of linguistics!

    It's the world's first malapoopertino.

  35. Bloix said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    Small business people who doing their own copywriting often make mistakes like this.

  36. Bloix said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    Doing. Hell. I need someone to do MY copywriting.

  37. Bobbie said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    Local ads often say [paraphrasing] "We have moved to our new address. Our shop was formally at Such-and -Such Street. " I called up one bridal shop and tried to explain the difference — to no avail.

  38. Nathan Myers said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 4:04 am

    I was disconcerted at the use of the word "mechanics" above. I think of a mechanic as somebody who fixes motor vehicles, or, at a stretch, any equipment that involves engines, gears, and belts. I'm reminded, though, of Shakespeare's "rude mechanicals" — Bottom and company, in A Midsummer Night's Dream — and wonder if that is the meaning and sense intended. If so, is that sense really still in common usage?

  39. jim townhead said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 6:26 am

    In my Latin lessons long ago, 'to' and 'for' were essentially interchangeable. 'Unique cars to disconcerting customers': maybe Egbert's were using the dative case?

  40. Tom Saylor said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 7:44 am

    To GKP:

    OK, a linguist settles on a set of correctness conditions for dialect A. The linguist then notices that some speaker has violated one of the correctness conditions, condition X. It would seem that the linguist can accommodate the discrepancy in any one of at least three ways. Assuming that the speaker is speaking in dialect A, the linguist can (1) conclude that the speaker has committed an error in dialect A or (2) conclude that X is really not a correctness condition for dialect A and that the speaker has committed no error in dialect A. Alternatively, the linguist can assume that the speaker is speaking in some other dialect, B, that does not have X as a correctness condition and (3) conclude that the speaker has not committed an error in dialect B (or in dialect A since he wasn't using that dialect).

    Now I take it that when, in your original post, you characterized the advertiser's use of 'disconcerting' as an error, you were doing (1), i.e, concluding that the advertiser had committed an error in a particular dialect, that is, your own dialect–call it Standard English. But then, after gathering further evidence from some of the comments on your post, you tentatively renounced (1) and considered opting for (3) instead, concluding that the advertiser was using the word correctly but in some dialect other than Standard English. I don't think you've (yet) gone so far as (2) and concluded that using 'disconcerting' in place of 'discerning' is not an error in Standard English.

    So I'm left to ponder how what you've done here differs from what prescriptivists typically do. When they encounter a violation of one of their rules (correctness conditions) they too say that it is (1) an error or, at any rate, (3) a deviation from some favored dialectic–the King's English or whatever. Whether they formally prescribe (or proscribe) anything doesn't seem so much to the point.

    I guess where prescriptivists differ from descriptivists (in practice if not in principle) is in the formulation and maintenance of a set of correctness conditions. Unlike descriptivists, prescriptivists tend to derive their correctness conditions from grammatical tradition and authority rather than from empirical observation of how the language is actually used, and they're generally reluctant to revise their correctness conditions in the face of empirical evidence. Still I wonder what sort of evidence a descriptivist deems sufficient for (2), i.e., for revising the accepted correctness conditions in the standard dialect of a language. In this case, for instance, would it make a difference (to a descriptivist) if the attestations of 'disconcerting' = 'discerning' came from the writings of lawyers and academics rather than car mechanics?

  41. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    @Tom Saylor:

    Lawyers and academics are often terribly poor users of language. In both cases it's at least partly because they are experts in highly technical fields other than language, yet their primary professional output takes the form of written documents. And many academics have the additional handicap of having to publish in English when it's not their first language. (I'm an English academic and constantly glad of the advantage the language gives me.)

    But more saliently to your point… The annals of Language Log have plenty of examples of prescriptivist 'rules' which are frequently broken by some of English literature's finest and most prominent writers. These people really are the experts in the use of English, but it doesn't seem to stop the Fowlers, Strunks and Whites of this world from railing against them.

  42. ajay said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    I wonder how widely people still talk about "discriminating customers" given that "discrimination" generally appears in the sense of sexual/racial discrimination, and therefore isn't something customers will appreciate being called.
    Well, most customers. "Our all-white workforce is happy to serve the discriminating customer."

  43. Tom said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    Especially when you imply that the lower classes are ignorant. Odd, that.

    I don't think that is the implication at all. A friend of mine is a car mechanic. My daughter is an English Literature major. Who is more likely to have read "Wuthering Heights"? Saying that someone who has not majored in English is less likely to have a solid background in the use of the English language does not imply ignorance any more than stating that someone who has not majored in physics is less likely to understand the paradox of Schrödinger's cat.

  44. Nicholas Waller said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    @ Tom – "Saying that someone who has not majored in English is less likely to have a solid background in the use of the English language does not imply ignorance"

    I'd say such a statement does indeed imply – or even assert – a certain amount of ignorance of a certain specific field, but agree it doesn't (or shouldn't) imply QI-style General Ignorance or stupidity.

  45. Karen said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    @Tom Saylor: You ask "I wonder what sort of evidence a descriptivist deems sufficient for (2), i.e., for revising the accepted correctness conditions in the standard dialect of a language. In this case, for instance, would it make a difference (to a descriptivist) if the attestations of 'disconcerting' = 'discerning' came from the writings of lawyers and academics rather than car mechanics?"

    I venture to answer (since I'm not GKP) that it's not the source but the quantity of the attestations. That is, it doesn't matter so much *who* says it as *how many people* say it. If two people in a million say it, it's not Standard, no matter who those two people are.

  46. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    Reacting to ajay's comment, I don't have the sense from my own observation that the now-pejorative connotations of "discriminate" and related words in racial or similar contexts have driven out the positive connotations of other usages such as "discriminating palate" and the like. Maybe some related words are mostly stuck on the pejorative side, however: "discriminatory palate" seems rare, but not totally unattested. It would be interesting to figure out whether people are essentially treating these as two conceptually different meanings of the word used in different contexts, one bad and one good, or if they continue to understand it as a single basic concept, and can retain in their minds the complementary notions that drawing distinctions based on invalid/immoral/illegal grounds is a bad thing whereas drawing distinctions based on valid/moral/legal grounds (like the quality of a particular shop's hot-rod production or the taste of a particular sort of wine) is a good thing. I think economists sometimes disagree about whether "price discrimination" in a particular context is benign, malign, or indifferent, but that suggests to me that the d-word itself is morally neutral in context since proponents of the practices so described have not felt the need (at least in the academic economics context) to come up with euphemisms to describe them.

  47. Ray Girvan said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    Tom Saylor: would it make a difference (to a descriptivist) if the attestations of 'disconcerting' = 'discerning' came from the writings of lawyers and academics rather than car mechanics?

    That's an interesting one. It occurs to me from time to time that my own criteria for acceptable descriptive evidence of usage are essentially classist (I generally go to Google Books and look in published works – which is a dataset inevitably skewed toward the vocabularies of educated people who get works published).

    That's fail-safe in part; if a usage has reached that essentially conservative niche, you can be sure it's mainstream. But it's well possible it won't pick up usages that are widespread but haven't had that validation.

  48. MWarhol said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    Regarding Nathan Myers's comment about "mechanicals": When I worked as a glazier's helper (around 1980, in the Washington DC area), the glaziers were referred to, and referred to themselves as, "mechanics," even though they didn't fix machinery, but only worked with tools at a particular occupation (cutting glass, and installing plate glass, aluminum storefronts and mirrors).

  49. Mabon said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    Going back to the original question of whether or not the word "disconcerting" in the copy on the website is an error or not, I'd like to note that the name of the company in the home page header is rendered as "Egberts", while in the text below it is "Egbert's" (with an apostrophe).

    I believe both "Egberts" and "disconcerting" are errors.

    But I'm not sure Mr. Egbert really cares.

  50. Katherine said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    @ Nicholas Waller "I'd say such a statement does indeed imply – or even assert – a certain amount of ignorance of a certain specific field, but agree it doesn't (or shouldn't) imply QI-style General Ignorance or stupidity."

    But frequently people DO use that sort of statement to imply general ignorance or stupidity, and that's why it will get objected to by concerned (concerted? :P) individuals. Isn't it general usage that is more important on Language Log than what words/statements *should* mean?

  51. arc said,

    January 13, 2010 @ 1:02 am

    Does intent count for anything here? I'm inclined to think it does. Let's say Egbert's are members of a dialect group that does in fact use 'disconcerting' to mean what Standard English uses 'discriminating' to mean. If they are writing their ad to be understood just by their dialect group, then they haven't made a mistake, but chances are good they're intending it to be understood more widely than this, i.e. they're intending to write in Standard English, and as Standard English uses these words mean different things, they've slipped up. As such, as I believed you remarked earlier (but can't find it!), politely correcting them isn't imperially imposing your dialect on someone who uses a different one, it's being helpful.

    As far as the possibility of such a dialect is concerned, surely what needs to be shown is not that lots of people use 'disconcerting' to mean (standard English) 'discriminating', but that these people use 'disconcerting' like this with each other. I think a likely case is that many of these people have only ever used 'disconcerting' once or twice, i.e. in the advertising copy that we're seeeing, and they don't in fact use the word amongst their peers. If this is right, then what we have isn't a linguistic community at all, but a bunch of isolated individuals who happen to have made the same mistake by chance.

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