The pit in Thomas Friedman's stomach

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Thomas Friedman, "I am a Man", NYT 5/14/2011:

Watching the Arab uprisings these days leaves me with a smile on my face and a pit in my stomach. The smile comes from witnessing a whole swath of humanity losing its fear and regaining its dignity. The pit comes from a rising worry that the Arab Spring may have been both inevitable and too late. If you are not feeling both these impulses, you’re not paying attention.

Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage:

Just as you can love someone from the bottom of your heart, you can also experience a sensation of dread in the pit (bottom) of your stomach. I don’t know whether people who mangle this common expression into “pit in my stomach” envision an ulcer, an irritating peach pit they’ve swallowed or are thinking of the pyloric sphincter; but they’ve got it wrong.

The OED suggests a more external perspective for the original anatomical metaphor:

pit of the stomach n. the epigastric fossa, a slight depression below the xiphisternum; (also) the epigastrium or upper abdomen, in which the stomach and solar plexus are located, esp. regarded as the seat of sensations associated with fear, unease, etc.

That anatomical sense of pit at issue survives in armpit, but some other uses didn't make it:

pit of the chin n. Obs. rare the hollow between the lower lip and the chin.

The COCA corpus suggests that Thomas Friedman's approach represents about 5% of current usage:

pit of my|your|his|her stomach 224
pit in my|your|his|her stomach 12

And the Google ngram corpus suggests that it's on the rise.

Certainly Thomas Friedman is far from the first person to use it in the New York Times:

1/31/1980: "I'm numb," said Charmaine Frank, […]. "I've had a pit in my stomach."

1/7/1987: "She said she didn't know if 'I could go through with it,'", Dr. Stern recalled. "I felt this pit in my stomach."

1/3/2001: Afterward, Kendall Gill confessed he felt a pit in his stomach when the Nets let what was once a 25-point third quarter lead dwindle perilously to two possessions.

5/31/2002: Ms. Cohen Alameno, 39, a homemaker, started the day with a pit in her stomach.

9/11/2001: I remember the pit in my stomach when he first saw it.

11/11/2007: I still feel a gnawing pit in my stomach when Peter Yarrow sings

The historically-sanctioned cliché is clearly "pit of X's stomach", while "pit in X's stomach" is a plausible invention, in the spirit of "an empty place in his heart" or "the abyss in her soul". This is rather like the development from "home in on" to "hone in on" — an older and more established cliché is challenged by an alternative version that makes at least as much sense, but is instinctively rejected by many well-read people as "wrong".

In the case of "home/hone in on", the original is not all that old, and the alternative version has nearly achieved parity in term of usage. In the case of "pit of the stomach", the original goes back to the 17th century, and the alternative version is still relatively rare.

It's interesting that the same sort of people who approvingly quote George Orwell's rule "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print" react so badly when someone like Friedman puts this advice into practice by refreshing a fossilized metaphor with a new interpretation.

Of course, the blocking effect of common figures of speech is experienced even by those who think that Orwell's essay was "dishonest and stupid". Just as the existence of the irregular form  oxen tends to block the corresponding regular form *oxes, so the historically-established pit of Thomas Friedman's stomach tends to block an otherwise-plausible pit in his stomach.

(I should add that this analogy is controversial…)

[Hat tip to Jack Maloney]


  1. Catanea said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 6:05 am

    Yes, I was stopped in my reading when I came to that expression; but I assumed he'd re-interpreted the pit as a sort of internal abyss – and indeed, that is what a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach feels like (to me). So I just let it flash by me. But I had expected some comment somewhere. I have the idea LL prefers not to address isolated curiousities, as I have the idea y'all prefer not to elicit straw polls…Thanks anyway!

  2. Peter said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 6:13 am

    It seems worth noting that of your NYT examples, the ones up to 2002 are all in quotations; only from 2002 are the writers directly using the phrase themselves.

  3. Steve F said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 6:26 am

    At least 'pit in my stomach' and 'hone in on' make sense, and are therefore genuine eggcorns. A few days ago I stumbled on a comment on a blog which said that something 'warmed the cuckolds of my heart'. A Google search confirmed that it wasn't unique. A malapropism, not an eggcorn, of course (and therefore off-topic?) buty I couldn't resisit sharing it.

  4. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    @Steve F: Not an entirely isolated malapropism; "cuckolds of my heart" has about 800 ghits. (And someone's reference to the "cold, dejected cuckolds of my heart" almost begins to make eggcorn-sense.)

  5. Jan Freeman said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    When I wrote (in the Boston Globe, April 2008) about the expression, I too wondered if "pit in my stomach" might be an eggcorn for some people. It could be interpreted as feeling as if you've swallowed a peach pit, for instance: A lump in the stomach, like a lump in the throat, but lower down. (Wouldn't work for people who call it a peach *stone*, but I think that's a regional variation.) I asked for readers' testimony on the point, but I don't recall anyone endorsing my eggcorn theory.

  6. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    > […] when someone like Friedman puts this advice into practice by refreshing a fossilized metaphor with a new interpretation.

    Is that what he was doing? I doubt he had any specific interpretation in mind; rather, I bet he just thought that this was the existing idiom. If you had asked him what it meant, he would probably have offered some theories as to where it came from, just as people do when asked to explain non-obvious idioms.

  7. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Something about pit makes it plausible to have one in one's stomach. I can't imagine anyone thinking he has a back in his mind as a way of describing a thought or memory. I did discover, to my surprise, that there are over 200,000 hits for "apple in my eye" and for "bottom in my heart" on Google. So there is something about pits, apples and bottoms that make them acceptable items to find in various body parts, but not backs for example? Any ideas?

  8. Tom said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Was Friedman "refreshing a fossilized metaphor with a new interpretation," or did he reach to the shelf for a handy old one, and fumble it? Friedman's metaphors haven't always been neatly-handled.

    I know a woman–a fine, intelligent lawyer–who uses the phrase "heart rendering." It always make me picture hearts, sizzling in a kettle, giving up their lard.

  9. Rebecca said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Deborah Tannen writes (in Talking Voices, 1989/2007) about "scales of fixity" in idioms. She argues that English idioms tend to be relatively less fixed than in some other languages and writes that "For English speakers, at least, it is common to use fixed expressions with some items in their canonical form altered, with no apparent loss of communicative effectiveness." Some of her examples, including some "fused formulas" :
    -I could care less
    -Up against the wire
    -It's no sweat off our backs
    -At the drop of a pin
    This seems relevant to Friedman's (intentional or unintentional) riffing on pits and stomachs. Does anyone have examples of altered and/or fused formulas in other languages?

  10. MarcL said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 10:08 am

    While I understand the objection to the metaphor, I rather like it. Fear can cause a knot of pain in the stomach region which, by not too much of a stretch might resemble swallowing a foreign object. As to home in on versus hone in on, I like that too; it has a homey sound to it. It does NOT, however, warm the cuckolds of my heart.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    Friedman was eating his cherries too quickly.

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    This reminds me of another mutated idiom I recently came across: "eat at one's craw," combining "eat at (someone)" and "stick in one's craw." Both the "pit" and "craw" idioms have become unmoored from their anatomical foundations.

  13. Josh Millard said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    I immediately thought of "knot in my stomach"; I wonder if what Friedman and others have produced with "pit in…" is the hybrid meat in an idiom sandwich.

  14. Tom Recht said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    The link to "Common Errors in English Usage" gives a 404 error.

    So is there a more established anatomical simile we could replace Friedman's with? "A lump in my throat" doesn't quite capture what he was getting at, I think.

  15. Mark F. said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    Tom Recht — see Josh's comment preceding. I think it's what you want.

  16. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    Friedman marches to the tune of a different kettle of fish.

  17. J Lee said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    i'm with ran ari-gur in seeing no basis for assuming it was intentional; if so he would have anticipated this very question. we just have to accept that these are minor embarrassments that could happen to anyone. that's not to say they are inevitable, though. i once looked up the correct form of 'in that vein' because other spellings and meanings were plausible.

  18. Cclinton said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    I feel like this could also be because sayings like "knot in one's stomach" (as Josh mentioned) or "butterflies in one's stomach."

    And I certainly feel that, at least for me, "pit" can't refer to the bottom half of something as Paul Brian rationalizes it there, so therefore you can't use "of" for it, because it is something that it doesn't possess on a normal basis.
    "Pit" for me rather, would refer to a hole or depression that mars an otherwise level plane, so it would seem more natural for me for it to be "in" something.

    Or at least the second definition is more prominent to me.

  19. Hermann Burchard said,

    May 23, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    Google admirably translates "a queasy feeling in the stomach" for common German "ein mulmiges Gefühl im Magen." Unfortunately, it couldn't do anything in reverse with "knot in my stomach." [For Magen ~ stomach we instead might find Bauch ~ belly.]

  20. Peter said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    This is really strange. I would have thought someone would have brought up hunger in all of this. I definitely use "in the pit of my stomach" to describe a feeling, usually of dread, but I also use "pit in my stomach" to mean that I am hungry. How could that work with the reinterpretation of the former into the latter?

  21. Matías Guzmán said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 12:12 am

    In Spanish we have the equivalent with: "un hueco en el estómago".

  22. Daniel Rutter said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 12:43 am

    "Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays." – Matt Taibbi,

  23. maidhc said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 2:23 am

    People who are interested in language notice and wonder about these things.

    I've noticed a fairly common error is to use "pacific" in the place of "specific". Most of the people I've noticed doing this are not native English speakers, so I'm inclined to cut them a little slack, because English is full of these weird consonant clusters that other languages may not have.

    But the other day I heard a native English speaker utter two consecutive sentences, one with "pacific" and one with "specific". So here was a person who knew the correct version but sometimes used the incorrect one too.

    When I had chemotherapy, one of the side effects was that I would say words that were the exact opposite of the word I thought I was saying, like "north" when my brain told me I was saying "south". I still do that sometimes now, but I can hear it after I say it and go back and correct it.

    My point is that one's speech and writing are not always the result of conscious consideration.

    I don't think that Thomas Friedman was thinking that much about what he was writing, but I would have imagined that the NYT still had editors. Maybe with the newly announced cutbacks they're just going with Microsoft Grammar Check, like my local newspaper.

  24. Ian Preston said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 3:34 am

    People seem to have pits all along their alimentary canals. "Pit of my throat" , "pit of my gut", "pit of my bowels" all get plenty of google hits. So does "pit of my chest" and even "pit of my lungs", suggesting many people are happy to use "pit" for any substantial enough internal bodily cavity. Pits "in" the bowels and lungs seem significantly rarer than pits "in" the throat, gut or chest, however.

  25. James Baxter said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 3:39 am

    For me, "a pit in my stomach" seems natural, so hopefully I can shed some light on friedmann's error.

    To have a pit in one's stomach is to feel an uncomfortable emptiness. It's a feeling of anxiety and dissatisfaction. I'm not sure if I realized before today what the traditional form of the idiom was. I'm sure I have read the idiom in its correct form and its incorrect form. To me it just seems natural to talk about a pit in one's stomach to refer a feeling of worry and uneasiness.

  26. Maureen said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    Re: pacific pronunciation of "specific", that's very common here in southwest Ohio, both as a child pronunciation and among older adults. It's a lot like saying "spose" instead of "suppose" — you know what it means, you know how it's spelled, and it's just more conversational to say it that way.

    Of course, around here both "wash" and "warsh" are equally common and get used in the same sentence, so I can easily imagine someone saying both "specific" and "pacific" in adjacent sentences.

  27. Michael Straight said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    It's interesting that the same sort of people who approvingly quote George Orwell's rule "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print" react so badly when someone like Friedman puts this advice into practice by refreshing a fossilized metaphor with a new interpretation.

    I think it's more the sense that Friedman almost certainly didn't do it on purpose.

    From Matt Taibbi's hilarious evisceration of Friedman's book The World is Flat:

    Thomas Friedman does not get these things right even by accident. It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius. The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses.

  28. un malpaso said,

    May 24, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    I like it when people stretch metaphors. Some people, including me, just like to play with language, and I think most linguists and language lovers come from that breed (despite a commonplace image of them as dusty theoreticians and dissecters). It's also funny to see other people get their figurative panties in a knot over those of us who like to have fun with language.

    I feel, and use, the term "the pit of my stomach" often, without even thinking about it. Maybe it's not commonly used, but it's a viscerally (literally!) understood and familiar term, at least by me.

  29. Tom said,

    June 2, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    Once more to the crash site of mishandled cliches:

    "For the time being it casts pallor on whether he can be a reasonable candidate for mayor," Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf told CBS News. "Too many questions. Ultimately, people will forgive Twitter but they won't forgive not coming clean."

    (On Rep. Weiner's diminished chances to become mayor of New York City. John Fund, "How Not to Handle a Political Crisis,", June 2, 2011.)

  30. Tom S. Fox said,

    February 9, 2012 @ 1:32 am

    Oh wait, I simply somehow clicked the wrong link. Never mind.

  31. Tom S. Fox said,

    February 9, 2012 @ 1:33 am

    Argh! That comment wasn’t meant for this thread! It’s still early in the morning.

  32. In which I end up with a pit in my stomach | richard bowker said,

    May 29, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

    […] a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach," but I guess I haven't been paying attention.  Here's an interesting article giving all kinds of similar usages from the Times.  Language Log recently […]

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