Friday, June 28, 2013

Riddle me this: a "bullet-ridden" corpse?

I got an e-mail yesterday from James Alan Fox, who teaches criminology at Northeastern University (and blogs for the Boston Globe), noting an oddity in the paper's update on Aaron Hernandez, the ex-Patriot now charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd. The victim's "bullet-ridden body was found in an industrial park" near Hernandez's home, the story* said.

"I know that ['bullet-ridden'] is sometimes used instead of 'bullet-riddled,' but is it proper?" asked Fox. "You can be guilt-ridden, but riddled reflects multiple holes."

He was way ahead of me, since I had no idea bullet-ridden was in circulation. And he's right: It's quite common to find bullet-ridden when bullet-riddled is (I think) intended. Ridden, after all, means "burdened, oppressed, harassed by": debt-ridden, hag-ridden, conscience-ridden. A riddle is a sieve, so riddled is the word for something (or someone) full of holes; "I was to be made a riddle of if I attempted to escape," says the OED's 1843 citation.

Ridden for riddled could be a retrieval error, a substitution of one word for a similar one by a writer who actually knows the difference. It's not hard to accidentally bunker down instead of hunker down, and so many writers have shimmied up drainpipes (instead of shinn(y)ing) that the new version is taking over. But whether it's an accident or a misapprehension, bullet-ridden has been around for a long time. Google Books instantly gave me a sampling of 19th-century examples like "the old, tattered flags, under whose bullet-ridden folds dear comrades fell" (1868).

Since both ridden and riddled suggest affliction, and their sounds are similar, apparently ridden sounds plausible enough -- especially in this cliched crime compound -- to slide right by editors and readers. Also, as the website Phrase Finder notes, both words go hand in hand with guilt: We can be guilt-ridden or riddled with guilt (or both). The reverse substitution is less likely: Riddled must retain enough of its "holey" sense to keep us from writing conscience-riddled or hag-riddled.

I like to think that in my editing days, I would have noticed a goof like bullet-ridden. But after looking at its history, I'm not feeling so confident. An awful lot of people have read the word, and the dearth of recorded peeving suggests that most of them -- or us -- didn't see anything wrong. 

*The link is to an updated version of the story Fox cites.


Bryan White said...

If I ride the Bullet Train, can I say that I've been on a bullet-ridden train, or would the case just be that I've ridden the bullet train?

As for "guilt-ridden", I associate that with being "saddled" with guilt, which goes back to the idea of an oppressive burden. If there's a saddle, then it stands to reason that a rider wouldn't be far behind.

"Bullet-ridden", on the other hand, just seems like an odd concept. Perhaps the mistake happens because all those L sounds in "bullet-riddled" make you feel like your tongue is having an allergic reaction to something and "bullet-ridden" is just a way of throwing yourself clear.

R T said...

I found the same usage in The Guardian Weekly (21.06.13):
"Moro's bullet-ridden body was discovered on 9 May". I put it down to the Grauniad's long and noble tradition of misprints but obviously it goes deeper than that.

Unknown said...

I heard this morning the same comment made so clearly by Frederica Whitfield of CNN on a police attack in Copenhagen referencing "bullet-ridden". I immediately thought "that's not right". From my experiences all to often it seems more important that if "sounds right" than "properly used".