Winching in an Entry, Wincing at the Results

Occasionally a disgruntled reader of my work accuses me of ignorantly and high-handedly imposing my arbitrary prejudices on the English language. Plenty of times I have been persuaded to change or delete an entry based on further information, but I do actually go through quite a process when I’m not sure that some usage is mistaken.

If you think this might be interesting to learn about, read on.

The first thing is to find out whether the usage is truly common. After all, it’s common errors that are my specialty.

When I run across a language error that seems interesting enough to investigate, I start by checking its frequency in Google. Today the example is “winched” for “winced,” as in “I winched in pain.”

I begin by searching Google for the phrase “winched in pain” between quotation marks, so that it searches for this exact phrase and does not turn up sentences like “as I winched in the line my arthritic wrist began to pain me.”

Google reports 143,000 hits, and displays the first 10, but I know from experience I cannot trust this. Clicking on the rightmost O in “Google” at the bottom of the page, I jump ahead ten pages. I keep doing this until I reach page 12.

Now at the top of the page Google says “Page 12 of 120 results” and at the bottom of the page: “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 120 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.” I click on the underlined phrase to do just that.

Then I repeat the clicking operation, going all the way to page 50. There the number of hits suddenly drops from 143,000 to 496. I don’t know why this happens, but it does. You cannot trust the first result numbers you get from Google, which after all is trying to offer you useful links to click on, not offering to conduct a census of the Web.

My somewhat arbitrary threshold for including an error on my site is 1,000 hits, so we’re less than half way there.

However, a second search for a present-tense variation—“winch in pain” turns up 273 more hits. But so far we’ve included “pain” in the search. How about “made me winch”? Just 127 hits. If I kept this up I could piece together a list of a thousand hits, but the numbers are just too low. Really common word confusions generate a lot more examples.

I check the very large and picky Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. No entry for “winch.’ No entry in the much more liberal American Heritage Book of English Usage or in the Columbia Guide to Standard American English.

This is not surprising, since usage guides ignore most such word confusions, though I’ve made a specialty of them on my Common Errors in English Usage site.

Back to Google, where I search for “winch vs. wince” this time not in quotation marks because I want any page on which the two words appear together in any order, and I don’t necessarily need to have “vs.” appear on the page.

The only results I get refer to dyeing processes which can involve machinery variously called a “winch” or a “wince.” Nobody is discussing the confusion I’m looking for.

I turn to dictionaries, starting with the New Oxford American Dictionary on my desktop, the free dictionary provided by Apple on my Mac. For the verb “wince” it says “give a slight involuntary grimace or shrinking movement of the body out of or in anticipation of pain or distress: he winced at the disgust in her voice.” And for “winch”: “hoist or haul with a winch.”

Just what I expected.

Next: the much more comprehensive Merriam-Webster Dictionary online.

For “wince”: “to have an expression on your face for a very short time which shows that you are embarrassed or in pain” and “to shrink back involuntarily (as from pain) :  flinch.” For “winch”: “to hoist or haul with or as if with a winch.”

It also provides an etymology: 
“Middle English winche roller, reel, from Old English wince; akin to Old English wincian to wink
“First Known Use: before 12th century.”

Interesting. The two words seem to be historically related. But for etymology (word history) there’s no better source than the online Oxford English Dictionary. I have access to this great reference work as a retired professor, through my university’s library. Check your own library to see whether you can access it as well.

Whereas regular dictionaries list the most common contemporary definition of a word first, the OED lists the oldest definition first, moving toward the contemporary ones at the bottom.

The etymologies given at the top of the pages for the two words do not establish a relationship between “winch” and “wince,” but lo and behold, the first listed definition of “winch” as a verb is “to start back or away, recoil, flinch, to wince.” The second definition is “to recoil in fear or disgust (at).” And so on for a full page of definitions in which “winch” means “wince.” So maybe it’s not a mistake after all?

But these are labeled “Obs.” That means they are obsolete. What was correct in older English can still be wrong in modern English.

Then I notice that the heading on this page is “winch, v.1,” meaning that there must be another page where the more familiar meanings of “winch” are discussed. And indeed at “winch, v.2” the first definition is “to hoist or draw up, etc. with or as with a winch.”

This experience illustrates why people like me shake their heads when someone asserts a usage must be correct because “it’s in the dictionary.”

When I’m preparing to write up an item, I try to find or invent a witty or otherwise memorable example sentence to include. For this entry I come up with “Using a corset winch could make you wince.”  

Terribly obscure and definitely Obs.—so never mind.

This search has kept me amused for a couple of hours, but “winched” for “winced” is just too marginal to make it into Common Errors.

But it might make a good blog post . .. .

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