Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Even More Contamination

Posted by Neal on March 26, 2008

I told Doug the joke that ends with the punchline, “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!” He loved it, and told it to his mom that night. He started out:

Some psychiatrists did an experiment on two kids. One was an optimist, and the other was a pestimist….

He told it to his friends who came over the next day. First he had to explain the unfamiliar vocabulary to them:

An optimist is someone who always looks for the good things. A pestimist is someone who….

Then he proceeded with the joke, telling about how the psychiatrists put the pessimistic boy in a room full of all the best toys, and the optimist in a room full of horse manure. And how when they checked in on the boys a short time later,

The pestimist was just sitting there, not playing with any of the toys.

As Doug finished up with the optimist who was eagerly digging through all the manure and uttering the punchline, I was thinking: What a poorly controlled experiment! The psychiatrists changed two variables: the kids’ dispositions, and the environment they placed them in. These people called themselves scientists?

Oh, and I also concluded that pestimist was not a slip of the tongue on Doug’s part. This is another case of contamination! We have our two words that sound somewhat alike, with related meanings: optimist, pessimist. And we have one of them becoming even more like the other one phonetically: pessimist –> pestimist.

Longtime readers may remember me talking about contamination with Adam’s counting, or with Doug’s pronunciation of appendix. And while I’m on the subject, here’s one more that I heard from Doug back in the fall: His piano teacher was teaching him about legato and staccato, but when Doug told me about it, he talked about legato and stegato.
It looks like he’s not alone for either kind of contamination: I find Google hits for both pestimist and stegato.

But back to optimists and pestimists: I hypothesized that Doug had interpreted the string -timist as a morpheme meaning something like “outlook on life”, and had op- and pes- with the positive and negative meanings. However, when I wrote both words (with his spelling) and asked him to circle the part that they had in common, he surprised me by circling only -mist. He explained that he got the pesti- part by thinking there must be some connection between this word and the standalone word pest. So it sounds like this is a case of contamination aided and abetted by some folk etymology.

9 Responses to “Even More Contamination”

  1. The Ridger said

    Which proves you can’t ever assume why people say the things they do. Their reasons may be utterly different than you thought.

  2. Viola said

    If a person is indeed an optimist, this makes perfect sense since pessimists are rather pesty (pesky) creatures to us optimists. Pessimists are usually quite like a fly on my buttocks until I reach deeply from my eternal optimism (sometimes complete oblivion) and figure out what’s ailing them; then their grievances sometimes make sense. Um, I pronounced it the same way when I was a kid. 🙂

  3. Viola said

    Stats from here: Holt pronounced pessimist as it should be pronounced and gave basic definitions of optimist and pessimist. When I asked Gregg how to pronounce pessimist, he pronounced it “pestimist.” I haven’t told Gregg the joke yet, but I told Holt and he produced a hearty chuckle. Stay tuned while I test it on Gregg to see if he gets it.

  4. TootsNYC said

    an eggcorn, an eggcorn!

    Because a pestimist surely is bugged by stuff, right?

  5. Viola said

    Sounds like it, doesn’t it? We’ll have to look that up!

    Didn’t you provide a great eggcorn link at one point?

    BTW: Gregg gave a hearty laugh as well, and already deduced why the pessimistic boy didn’t play with the toys. He understood why the optimist would look through the manure, but I could tell a part of him was a little grossed out.
    He’s not as ready to discuss scatology as the rest of us….yet.

  6. Neal said

    The standard reference has become the Eggcorn Database. I don’t write much about eggcorns, though, because I have not yet found a coherent definition of them that distinguishes them from folk etymology. As best I can tell, eggcorns are folk etymologies that have not caught on widely enough to replace the original expression. This seems consistent with the most-current definition given on the Eggcorn Database’s About page. But if that really is the definition, I think it only confuses the matter to distinguish eggcorns from folk etymologies, since it’s the same process going on in both cases.

  7. Viola said

    Neal: In reading the Eggcorn Database, even the “definition” of an eggcorn is ambiguous. I understand the hesitancy to “go there” because the definition they gave was almost overlapping. Pestimist was not included as an eggcorn.

  8. The Ridger said

    Isn’t a folk etymology an explanation for something, while an eggcorn is a refashioning of the original?

  9. Neal said

    Folk etymology is used by nonlinguists to mean a historically inaccurate etymology for something, for example, all those made-up acronymic origins of words like posh, shit, and fuck. Linguists tend to call this phenomenon false etymology, and reserve the term folk etymology to refer to a refashioning of a word so that it makes more sense than the semantically opaque original. It seems to me that folk etymology most often, maybe even always, involves false etymology.

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