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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.

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2 Answers 2

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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.

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  • This looks like a very intentional pun to me Silverman knew exactly what he was writing, IMHO.
    – user21497
    Commented Nov 5, 2012 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
    Commented Nov 5, 2012 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
    Commented Jan 20, 2013 at 17:03
  • I don't see that this is clearly a pun. If he were selling pianos, or perhaps bicycles, it would be a good pun to say he "soft-peddled" them. He's peddling, or selling, his "wares," right? As in, what a peddlar does? So how is "soft-peddle" not understood to be a soft-sell technique?
    – michelle
    Commented Dec 25, 2021 at 20:32
  • @Michelle: given that the rest of the story is filled with horrendous puns (Heymon Tosh -> Hamantashen), soft-peddle really has to be a pun. Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 21:20
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Terms like "hard sell" are common, even where no literal sale is contemplated. For example, the Little Feat song "Texas Twister", which was a U.S. #1 hit in 1990, contains the lyrics,

They sure do play it hard and fast / while they sell it soft and low.

(See, e.g., Little Feat discography and Little Feat Texas Twister lyrics.)

Therefore, there seems to be nothing logically wrong with "soft-peddle" as their antonym. Whatever the origins of the phrase, "soft-peddle" is not really a malapropism. It seems at best overly pedantic to say that "soft-peddle" is incorrect, instead of merely a new(er), about-equally-correct version of an old(er) idea and term. Or at least, that's my opinion, and well-explained disagreement is welcome.

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    This doesn't prove that it is not an eggcorn, though: it is a defnining characteristic of eggocorns that they sort of make sense.
    – jsw29
    Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 21:32

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