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Wanton eggcorns

The mysterious Mr. Verb, who writes about language at the blog of the same name, heard something odd while watching hockey on TV last weekend: "The announcer on the NHL game of the week...just said 'as they are wanton to do.'"

A slip of the tongue? Not necessarily. The announcer may believe, for whatever reason, that wanton to do is just a variant -- more formal, perhaps -- of wont to do, the usual expression meaning "accustomed to do." It could be, as Mr. Verb suggests, that we're looking at a newly hatched eggcorn.

As Chris Waigl explains at the Eggcorn Database, eggcorns -- named for someone's reanalysis of the word "acorn" -- aren't just homophone mistakes, like using their for they're or flack for flak. They have to be reasonable, at least to the user.

If you write all tolled for all told, or to the manor born for Shakespeare's to the manner born, the phrase still gets the idea across, though the underlying image is different. Likewise with fresher eggcorns like self phone for cellphone and ten-year track for tenure track; they make sense, if not exactly the original sense.

In the case of "wanton to do" (as with many new eggcorns), it's not always clear what users have in mind. A Google search turns up just a few dozen instances, and most of the writers use wanton to do as if it were wont to do: Dolphins are "darting this way and that as they are wanton to do." Or "Emotion had reduced stone to rubble as it was wanton to do."

In nearly half of the examples, it's true, the habitual behavior in question is a bit dubious. So it's possible that one or another of wanton's many senses -- "lewd" or "excessive" or "malicious" -- is in the back of the writer's mind here:

"You don't eat it straight out of the jar as my mother is wanton to do."

"A stonking '60s party is in full swing and as I am wanton to do I find myself dancing on chairs."

And in the rest of the citations, the meaning is up for grabs. "He had no energy or wanton to do anything": Is that wantin', as in desire? Or "I...did the research you are wanton to do": Neglecting, perhaps, as in "found wanting"?

Wanton isn't the only word that gets in the way of wont. The noun form of wont, meaning "habit, custom," is not uncommonly spelled want (no doubt by people who pronounce the words alike, as many do): "Britney Spears went out on the town last night, as she is want to do."

Is this confusion a contributing factor in the wont/wanton eggcorn? Mr. Verb notes that want (a verb) doesn't work syntactically as a replacement for wont (adjective), but changing want to wanton fixes the problem, if you're not hung up on precise meanings.

To the wont-savvy, this might sound implausible. But wont is a fairly literary and old-fashioned word. Samuel Johnson declared it all but dead in 1755, says usage writer Bryan Garner, but "it hangs on today as a slightly whimsical way of expressing customary behavior." Wanton is also a rather literary word, and one with a wide range of meanings, from "bawdy" to "inhumane" to "luxuriant."

Maybe they're both just unusual enough to be lumped together, by some writers, as variations on a theme, their differences too subtle to worry about, like hearken and hark back, or gantlet and gauntlet. We may never know the truth, just as we don't know which sportswriter first reshaped on track into untracked ("out of a rut"), or how he persuaded his colleagues to go along with it.

Other eggcorns are out there, worming their way into our linguistic unconscious. Not long ago I heard David Sedaris, in a radio spot, refer to clothes shopping as "the provenance of women." He meant the province ("domain, territory, business"), not provenance ("origin, source"). But sure enough, the Web reveals a trendlet: "Is quilting viewed as unimportant because it is perceived to be the provenance of women?"

And I've got my eye on pot marks for pock marks, which has made the leap from the Web to an actual printed (British) newspaper: "The man is described as Asian, between 30-35 years old and with an oval face with pot marks on the cheeks and stubble."

What's in your eggcorn collection? Send along your best so we can all savor and mock them, as we are wantin', wanton, and wont to do.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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