This is about language and literacy, and may come across as grumpy old man stuff. I really don't feel grumpy about it, though. Well, all right, I admit I do find it annoying, just a little. But mainly find it amusing, and interesting. Language develops, and frequently the developments are accidental and involve ignorance and/or confusion. And I don't want to sound like I'm coming down really hard on other people's mistakes, because I certainly make enough of my own. In fact this post is probably a trigger or catalyst for me to make a bad one, or have someone point out an old one.
I don't know what the statistics say, but it seems pretty obvious to me that in my lifetime there has been a decline of literacy in several senses of the word. One of these is ignorance of certain words and expressions that were once absorbed from print, seen first and heard later (or perhaps both more or less at once), but are now heard first and maybe never seen at all until some young person, raised on TV and the Internet, has a need to convert them to text. Their general import has been grasped, but the words themselves have been confused with homonyms or near-homonyms, resulting in a mistaken choice for print. And presumably an explanation, also mistaken, has been un- or half-consciously supplied as background. It's that apparent reasoning that I find most interesting.
I began to notice this some time ago, not only in casual personal communications but in journalism where the writer was presumably paid and standards of some sort ought to apply. I jotted down several of them, by which I mean I wrote with a pen on a scrap of paper, which I have just located on my desk. I thought of it a few days ago when I saw an ad for a literary magazine on Facebook which invited me to "Take a peak" at their latest issue.
toe the line -> tow the line
I've always thought the original expression had a military origin, meaning something like "Line up precisely and stay that way." I pictured soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in a straight line, toes touching a line, real or imaginary, directly in from of them. According to Wikipedia, that's the most likely possibility, although not the only one. But in any case the word is "toe," not "tow," and the meaning is more or less what I said. That has long been generalized to mean, in a word, "conform." In my experience its most frequent use has been to refer to conformity of speech by members of some organization, especially regarding communication with those outside. This has been helped along because the word "line" has for some time been used to refer to an officially approved and supported idea or doctrine, especially in politics, as in "the party line." "He's not sure this legislation is a good idea but he'll toe the line when he talks to the press."
So if you're a young person who's never done all that much reading you may have grown up hearing that phrase on TV but never have read it. And your young head makes the best sense it can of it: the politician in question will "tow"--i.e. carry, i.e. repeat, i.e. stick to--the official "line." If you have to put the idea into text, "tow the line" is what you write.
defuse -> diffuse
As in "The manager spoke calmly to the angry customer in an attempt to diffuse the situation." This makes a kind of sense: instead of conflict seen as a bomb that needs to be defused, it's seen as a kind of poisonous cloud that can be diffused.
moot -> mute
As in "It's a mute point." A "moot point" has a legal origin meaning that the point, whatever it is, has no more legal relevance. We generalized it to refer to something related to a debate or discussion but of little or no consequence to the resolution. "Whether the evidence was enough to convict him is a moot point, because he died before the case came to trial." It's easy to see how one hearing this, not knowing the word "moot," would semi-reasonably think it was "mute"--a point that does not speak to the question at hand.
throes -> throws
As in "death throws." I suppose the image here is more or less correctly grasped as a sort of convulsion. But I find it macabre, and a little funny in a macabre way, because it pictures something a good deal more vigorous: the corpse-to-be actually throwing itself about the place, hurling itself across a room. Or, less morbidly, "He was in the throws of infatuation."
cite -> sight
As in "He was sighted for drunk driving." You know, the police saw him driving drunk, so they arrested him.
site -> sight
As in "Emergency workers are on sight at the accident." We know they are there because we saw them. It's hard to believe that many people don't know the word "site," so this may just be the textual equivalent of a slip of the tongue--something I do fairly often when typing, actually. But I have seen it in news stories.
pique -> peak
As in "It peaked my interest." This makes the original expression, "piqued my interest," a good deal more emphatic: interest brought to its maximum point, not merely aroused.
I think I've also seen "peek my interest," which makes less sense. I have not seen anyone refer to a fit of peak. Or peek.
apprise -> appraise
As in "You will be appraised of any changes to this policy." As with "pique," this one is probably just ignorance of the existence of the original word, and substitution of one that the person knows. But I guess it's not like the others in that it's just pure mistake, not a plausible use of the incorrect word, except in the vaguest way.
beg the question -> beg the question
This is not exactly the same sort of thing, as it doesn't involve use of the wrong word, but it does involve misunderstanding. It doesn't mean "provoke the question." It's a semi-technical term for the logical fallacy of assuming a conclusion in the premise of an argument. (See Wikipedia.) It's a very understandable misconstrual. And it's a fitting instance for this discussion because, as the Wikipedia article explains, it is itself the result of a misunderstanding like the others I've listed here. Also, someone who encountered it through reading is more likely to know its original meaning.
foreword -> forward
All right, in this case I am grumpy. This one deserves no mercy. Anyone who is writing about books and has occasion to mention a foreword ought to know the word. But there is a kind of very loose sense to it, as the foreword can be seen as forward of the main text.
If you have other instances of this sort of thing, I'm interested in hearing them.
The "take a peak" I referred to earlier I'll ascribe (not "subscribe") to straightforward old-fashioned typographical error.
Slightly related. I think I'll keep to myself the location of the book of which this is the cover. It is on public display. I can't believe I'm the only one who ever noticed it, but it seemed to have been there for a while.