Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Oftly ambiguous

I just came across the phrase "which is going to be oftly hard" during my daily perusal of the worldwide net. It's going to be hard often? I thought. Then I caught the eggcorn possibility. I searched for "oftly" before various adjectives and adverbs. Here are some of the phrases I found:

  • It was oftly late, and he was tired. here

  • it's oftly dark and dreary right now. here

  • dane cook is oftly funny also. here

  • you're going to feel oftly dumb when you lose out here

  • Who knows if Eli Manning will ever be as good Peyton, its oftly early to tell, here

  • You were oftly quick on that one Corry. here

  • I was only curious because that Navigation button looks oftly difficult to use. here

  • They're easy to make, healthy, and you'd have to try oftly hard to screw it up. here

I provide fuller snippets of this use because oftly meaning often or frequently could be used in pretty much the same phrasal environment. Longer bits of text give us clues that help distinguish between the two uses. Consider the possibility of an eggcorn or not in the following pairs of sentences:

  1. His shirts are oftly wrinkled

  2. That shirt is oftly wrinkled

  3. His shirts are oftly hideous

  4. That shirt is oftly hideous

Sentences 1 and 2 can be referring to how often the wrinkles occur. It's easy for a shirt to be sometimes wrinkled sometimes not. Of course both sentences could also be using oftly for awfully. These are ambiguous.

Both 3 and 4 could refer to how often the shirts are hideous. But 4 looks less likely. The implication of sentence 3 would be that he often wears hideous shirts--not that the appearance of each individual shirt often 'becomes' hideous. Sentence 4 focuses on a single shirt and is less likely to mean 'often'. Would the shirt change prints? There is still ambiguity but there's a more likely meaning of 4.

Fortunately I found sentences like "you'd have to try oftly hard to screw it up" because often wouldn't likely occur between "try" and "hard". Modifying "try" it's more likely to follow the phrase ('try hard oftly') or perhaps precede it ('oftly try hard')--unless the intention was to use "hard" to modify how you "try oftly"--[[try oftly] hard]. Not a likely reading considering how common the phrase "try awfully hard" is.

The necessary reanalysis of meaning (to make it an eggcorn) looks reasonable. This isn't likely a mere misspelling of a misheard word--especially since the new spelling is a less common word (270,000 hits for oftly vs 6,650,000 for awfully).

The voiceless alveolar [t] might be excrescent between the voiceless [f] and the alveolar [l]. Then again who knows if it's pronounced by those who write it? There's plenty of historical evidence for [t]→Ø/[f]__: soften often not that a similar rule/process is necessarily applied or at work here but the result of the Early Modern English trend provides the precedents for a possible analogy.

But it's still tricky trying to trace a clear path from oftly=often to oftly=very. There's a shared sense of escalation between the two words. And consider that from really to rather to terribly to quite and of course to awfully we see terms of intensification coming in from all directions.


  1. All I can think to say it, "do you mean 'orphan, a person who has lost his parents' or 'often, frequently'?"

    (Which never made any sense to me as a kid in a rhotic dialect, by the way.)

  2. Or is it possible that there are just a bunch of idiots out there who can't spell? (Okay, maybe idiot is too strong of a word, but it's been a long week!)

  3. innocent by-standard


  4. haha sorry guys i didnt take the time to read the comments but 'oftly' is actually spelled 'awfully' it's a figure of speech

  5. anon: you do realize that the 'misspelling' of 'awfully' was was the point of the post, right?

    perhaps i should have been clearer about what an eggcorn is (altho i'm not sure this is one). an eggcorn is a morphological reanalysis of a word based on a similar phonetic alternative that provides different but feasible semantics.

    the question of the post is compound: 1) is it possible that the only thing that changes is the spelling, and the meaning is completely untouched? if not 2) how likely is it that 'oftly' is intended to mean "often" in these sentences and 3) how likely is it that those who use 'oftly' hear 'awfully' and believe they are hearing 'oftly'?

    noting that it's a figure of speech doesn't really address these questions.


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