Word Count

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Passing the Blame: A "Scapegoat" by Any Other Name...

We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Here she considers how "scapegoat" gets turned into "escape goat" — an error that actually has an etymological basis.

Antonio Pierce, on ESPN, was talking about how the Washington Redskins seemed to be blaming their quarterback for a lot of their troubles. "I think they're using Donovan McNabb as an escape goat," he said.

Pierce probably meant "scapegoat," of course, and has been kidded a lot about it. But "escape goat" is showing up a lot in transcripts of radio, television, and audio chat programs, even when the person actually said "scapegoat," unlike Pierce. It's a mondegreen, which, as we said here in 2008, is "a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung."

Sometimes the use of "escape goat" is deliberate, a play on words rather than a mistake. The New York Post used the mondegreen on an article about a "by-the-book prison guard" who committed suicide after two men escaped on his watch. The Post's headline, perhaps not in the best of taste, was "TRAGIC ESCAPE GOAT - Guard Kills Self After NJ Fugitives 'Thanked' Him."

But "escape goat" isn't the same kind of mondegreen as, say, "it's a doggy dog world," a mishearing of "dog eat dog." In some ways, "scapegoat" is the mondegreen of "escape goat," not vice versa. (Update: As Ben Zimmer points out, "doggy dog world" is more of an "eggcorn," defined as a word or phrase that is used by mistake, usually because it sounds similar to the original word or phrase. "Eggcorns and "mondegreens" are nearly identical, but "mondegreens" tend to apply more to lyrics or poems and the like.)

The concept of the "scapegoat" is in the Bible, in Leviticus, as part of the ritual of atonement. The word "scape-goat" itself, though, did not appear until 1530, according to The Oxford English Dictionary: "In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed." That first goat escaped death, though it was loaded with sin. Since "scape" was merely a spelling variation of "escape," it was, literally, an "escape goat." Maybe "escaped goat" would be more grammatically correct, but no matter. Perhaps, one could say, it was a goat on the lam. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

It wasn't until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, though, that people began to carry the sins of others. The OED's first citation is "Country-boys .. are patient, too, and bear their fate as scape-goats, (for all sins whatsoever are laid as matters of course to their door,..), with amazing resignation."

So don't blame poor Antonio Pierce for his mistake. He may have been way ahead of the game. Unlike the Redskins...

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Merrill Perlman helps sort out some dictionary confusion.
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