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Centrifical force

Q From Sharla Hardy: Until I took high school physics, I believed that there was such a thing as centrifical force. In class I learned that there was no such thing, only two related forces called centripetal and centrifugal. Is centrifical a conflation of the two? A mistake for centrifugal? Is there a history for the word, or was it, say, heard on Saturday morning cartoons and spread from there?

A Those versed in Newtonian mechanics will of course say at once that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist, but is a virtual force based on our subjective sensory experiences — it’s really inertia trying to keep a body moving in a straight line. But leaving the physics aside, the term centrifugal certainly exists. But until you mentioned it, I’d not to my knowledge ever come across centrifical and would at once have marked it as the error it is. But it’s surprisingly common.

Google turned up 3000 examples. A newspaper search found hundreds of others, the oldest being from the Manitoba Daily Free Press of 11 October 1879. An obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in February 2003 credited its subject with a book entitled Power Your Golf Swing With Centrifical Force, which would be a trick worth watching. Air-conditioning engineers seem particularly fond of it — I found many references to devices called centrifical chillers.

It’s an example of what some American linguists have recently begun to refer to informally as an eggcorn: a spell-as-you-speak error. (Geoffrey Pullum invented the name in 2003. It comes from the story of an American woman who wrote egg corns when she meant acorns, since in her dialect the first vowels are identical; she probably also says beg like the first syllable of bagel. Other eggcorn examples are supposably for supposedly, nucular for nuclear, and intrical when integral is meant.) A common US way to say centrifugal is close enough to centrifical for the error to be often committed to writing. That’s especially likely if the word is stressed on the second syllable rather than the third. One reason why it sounds right to many ears is that it includes the very common suffix -ical.

What interests me, speaking as a language watcher, is how often the mistake has been repeated down the decades, each time disregarded by any knowledgeable person who encountered it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Dec. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 December 2004.