what those teeny little garbage cans are for

I’m a fan of eggcorns, and some linguistic squirrels have been collecting these tasty little nuggets for a while now. Eggcorns are those funny little mistakes we make about the original meanings of words or cliched phrases, substituting in words that make a kind of associative sense, as when people say, “I am adverse to pain,” or “She allowed her conscience free reign.” The person who coined the phrase “free rein” was thinking of horses, but thanks to duplications in pronunciation in English, many people end up thinking of unchecked kings. (Also, I’m particularly sympathetic to the suicidal chickens who “come home to roast.”)

But what do we call it when we make up a new word by mistakenly smashing two words together? The original “eggcorn” doesn’t count, because it’s still an attempt to reproduce the word “acorn”; it still attempts to create all the phonemes in the original word.

I was in the movie theatre at Balad Air Force Base, Iraq, whose men’s room features a low channel in the floor instead of urinals but also individual tiny closets for stalls, which was pretty nice. (The toilet stalls here are frequently non-functional, not to mention non-locking, and I’m often happier in a port-o-potty.) In each of those private rooms in Balad, I noticed, the maintenance staff had placed a small wastebasket with a plastic liner. These were mostly unused, and none was used for its intended purpose — disposing of your soiled toilet paper. I knew about this practice from time spent in Brazil — in some countries, the plumbing wasn’t really meant to carry solid waste, and keeping toilet paper out of the toilets helps avoid clogs. Which is exactly what the sign on the wall tried to explain: “Please put toilet paper in waste basket. It is not good for the septicle.”

The “septicle,” obviously, is the septic receptacle. And really, this rephrasing saves time — even “septic tank” is two words and causes one to use up extra neurons.

I have no idea if other examples of this kind of thing abound — I suspect they must, if John McWhorter’s claim that the widespread use of English as a second language will permanently change the language turns out to be true. One could call it a neologism, I suppose, but that’s an ugly, clunky word, and is also broader than what I have in mind here. A septicle, then, if I may be so bold as to name it, is a fusion of two words based on some (but not all) phonemes in common, which also fuses the meanings of the two words into a complete concept. It is not an eggcorn, because it may drop some segments or syllables, and because it creates a new meaning combined from two old meanings. It is not a mondegreen, because its meaning is not nonsensical. It is a septicle.

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