Early this year, Lexie Kahn had a posting about the recent English word mumblecore, which she explained “is a trendy term for ultra-low budget independent films by and about twentysomethings.” She gave credit for the coinage to Eric Masunaga in 2005, when he was at a bar right here in Austin during the annual South by Southwest film festival. Based on the “low-fi” sound tracks and everyday speech patterns characteristic of such films, Masunaga was apparently thinking mumble corps, along the lines of press corps, diplomatic corps, and the like. People who heard the unfamiliar phrase spoken must have transcribed mumble corps as mumblecore, and that’s the form that has persisted.

English acquired the word corps from Old French cors, which developed from the Latin word for ‘body,’ corpus (whose p has been restored in the modern French and English spelling, though not in the pronunciation). From the fact that a physical body is made up of various parts or members, English uses corps as a metaphorical ‘body.’ For example, the Army Corps of Engineers is a ‘body’ or ‘group’ that is made up of  individual engineers of various types.

The confusion between corps and the identically pronounced but unrelated core is understandable. Not only is it understandable, but it’s low-hanging fruit for punsters. As far back as 1951, Time used the punning headline “The Press: Core of the Corps.”

Anyone who knows even elementary Spanish will recognize that the Spanish cognate of corps is cuerpo. Like English, Spanish uses the word figuratively for ‘a group,’ as in the cuerpo diplomático. The members of the group needn’t be alive, as evidenced by the fact that Spanish can use cuerpo for ‘a volume in a collection of books’; the Diccionario de la Real Academia gives the example “La librería tiene dos mil cuerpos.” That’s not a usage that English shares, and a Spanish speaker in an English-speaking country who goes to a library and asks to check out bodies is likely to get, if not any bodies, at least a cold shoulder.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. chaiselongue1
    Oct 15, 2011 @ 12:48:08

    It’s interesting the way a mis-hearing and mis-spelling results in a new word like this. We do talk in English about the ‘body of work’ of a writer, but as you say not in the sense of a collection in a library which implies many different writers.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 15, 2011 @ 16:00:57

      A spelling-based misconception that I remember growing up with, and one that’s relevant to your online identity, is chaise lounge, based on the fact that people do happen to lounge in a chaise longue. Studying French turned lounge back into its anagram longue in my head, but not in the heads of the majority of English speakers, I’m afraid


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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