language corner

Pedal Pushers

"Soft-peddling" a faulty homonym
January 26, 2009

Now that Barack Obama is president, one columnist wanted to know, weren’t the late-night comedians, who had taken so many potshots at George Bush, “now soft-peddling ridicule of their golden boy?”

That’s a hard sell, because the correct phrase is “soft-pedaling.”

There is, though, a kind of twisted logic that could lead one to believe that “soft-peddle” is correct.

To “peddle” is to sell or market something. If you’re “soft-peddling,” that logic goes, you’re not selling it really hard; your heart’s not in it. The columnist was wondering if the comedians didn’t put their hearts into ridiculing Obama.

Sounds good, but, unfortunately, the dozens of news outlets that have used that spelling in recent months should be kicking themselves. They should have been “soft-pedaling.”

The phrase “soft-pedaling” has nothing to do with selling, and everything to do with feet. As we learned with crescendo, many English phrases have musical origins. Instruments like pianos, organs and harps have any number of “pedals” that are used to change the tone of the music. One of those on the piano is the “soft pedal,” and it does just that—softens the tone.

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Thus, if you “soft pedal” something, you’re toning it down. The columnist was wondering whether the comedians were going easy on Obama, toning down the jabs. Sure, it’s not far from “soft peddle,” but it’s a homonymic—and etymological—error.

“Pedal” has the same root as “pedicure,” “pedicab,” and “pedipalp,” derived from Latin for “foot.” (And if you need to look up “pedipalp,” do so—it’s worth the effort.) “Peddle” apparently derives from a Latin term for a person of a lower rank, though its path, too, can be walked back to “foot.”

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of “soft-pedal” as a verb to 1915, in The Saturday Evening Post. It took another thirty-seven years for it to transmute into a noun, “soft-pedaling.” (An alternative spelling is “soft-pedalling.”)

So watch those homonyms, or you might end up with your foot in your mouth.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.