Broiling Over

If you reinterpret “in fetal position” as “in feeble position” or use “hunger pains” rather than “hunger pangs,” you’ve got yourself an eggcorn. The word eggcorn itself is an eggcorn (a reshaping of a word—in this case, acorn—based on a new and plausible understanding of its parts and/or meaning). Geoff Pullum picked up on Mark Liberman’s Language Log post on eggcorns to coin the term as a way to refer to this phenomenon; and it has found its way into several dictionaries with this meaning.

There is now an Eggcorn Database, where you can find hundreds of examples (with citations), as well as critical discussion of what counts as an eggcorn and what doesn’t.

Today I will submit a new entry. I felt it needed to be done before things broil over.

Oops: I mean, boil over.  And that’s the point.

I am indebted to Martha Pollack, provost of the University of Michigan, for alerting me to this eggcorn. As I read her email about broil over, the phrase sounded readily familiar, like something I had heard folks say but hadn’t paid much attention to. I did a little digging to see if I could find it written down. And sure enough, there it is online.

For example, this sentence opens a CBS DC online article from December 2014:

The controversy over a disputed Rolling Stone article about campus rape at the University of Virginia has broiled over into the Capitol Building.

The University of Georgia’s The Red & Black mentions another campus with an issue that has broiled over to get national attention:

 Virginia Tech’s campus is no stranger to the gun debate which has broiled over into the national scene, in part because of Cho’s tragic shooting spree on that tragic April day.

In April 2014, International Business Times published the article “Sherpa Guides Demand Changes After Deadliest Day On Mount Everest” with the following description:

Tensions broiled over last year after three European climbers attempted to pass local guides who were setting up ropes for an expedition team.

And there’s this from a piece published online by the Institute for International Medicine:

Yet in 1979 Iran broiled over into a bitter revolution that killed over a million citizens.

It doesn’t seem hard to see how this eggcorn happened.  Both boiling and broiling involve lots of heat, which metaphorically can refer to anger, outrage, or intense pressure.

The verb boil has been used figuratively since at least 1300, first to describe physical things moving or seething with agitation like boiling water and then quickly to describe emotions (for example, Chaucer once referred to lechery boiling in the body). The metaphor extended, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has an example from 1577 in which “the people boiled with anger.” In 1879 there is a citation for boil over: “The political frenzy was now boiling over.”

The verb broil is cited in the OED as early as 1375 meaning “to char, cook over fire.” By the 16th century, it could be used to mean that something grows hot, “including figuratively from anger,” to quote the OED. The OED marks that meaning as obsolete, but the entry also hasn’t been updated since the first edition in 1888.

We can boil with anger and we can broil with anger, so it’s just a short step to broiling over rather than boiling over. One could argue that it makes more sense to broil up (say into flames that could reach beyond the current state of things) than to broil over, but it is plausible, I think, to see the hot bubbling of the broiling as something that could spill over.

Now I’ll be watching for broiling point, in addition to boiling point, and not just in clever articles about rising temperatures and “hamburger wars.”

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