In chat the other day I asked the following question:

"Recently I've been seeing writers using "soft-peddle" in print (in reputable publications, to boot) when I am certain the trope is "soft-pedal": anybody have an opinion on this?"

My reasoning is that the term comes from the soft pedal of the piano, which the musical among you will recognize as being the pedal that composers want you to use to play a passage quietly and without force.

@tchrist noted that the OED only lists "soft-pedal": "OED attests all three of soft pedal, soft-pedal, soft-pedalling, but not the other." @BarrieEngland agreed, and said he thought "soft-peddle" might be an eggcorn of "soft-pedal."

Further research on my part yielded information that "soft-peddle" is even included on The Eggcorn Database, a Web site I hadn't known existed till now. The term soft-pedal when spoken might be thought by the listener to be related to the "soft sell".

The use of soft-pedal peaked in the middle of the last century, while "soft-peddle" began around the same time and gained a bit of currency since then, though it is still seen far less often — overwhelmingly so — than its forebear.

It gets down to this: Are we seeing a play on words or a blunder? Certainly someone with sufficient writing credentials could be given the benefit of the doubt. Yet it seems that even (or especially) the best writers might want to underscore such a subtle pun with quotes, or set it off some other way that suggests it wasn't just a typo or brain cramp. And if "soft-peddle" makes steady gains, might it not one day supplant the term that spawned it? Bonus points for anyone who can provide at least a single documented instance of "soft-peddle" being used unequivocally as a pun, not a misspelling or misapprehension.

  • 3
    Can the down-voter please explain your reasoning, assuming it's more than drive-by malice? – Robusto Nov 5 '12 at 14:48

A Purim Shpiel By Dan Silverman contains what is unequivocally a pun.

Although able to build a profitable medical practice in Kingston’s Jewish quarter, Maimonides could not secure a congregation among the suspicious and inward-looking autochthonous Jewish settlement. He came to soft-peddle his rabbinical wares among the local infirm gentile population, enticing them into his book-filled ante-room with small three-cornered cookies filled with his special recipe of opiated pain-easing poppy seed paste.

By far the majority of Google results for soft-peddle should really be "soft-pedal", though.

  • This looks like a very intentional pun to me Silverman knew exactly what he was writing, IMHO. – user21497 Nov 5 '12 at 14:47
  • @BillFranke Yes, the more I consider it, the less likely "soft-pedal" is and the more likely it is to be deliberate. I've removed the doubt. – Andrew Leach Nov 5 '12 at 14:48
  • Accepted and, as promised, bonus point. Sorry I waited this long, but it's been under my radar and I simply didn't notice. – Robusto Jan 20 '13 at 17:03

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