A ‘squirmish’ over language

The first time I saw a writer on the Internet misuse the word “squirmish” for “skirmish”, it was a message-board post on hawkeyenation.com earlier this week:

“I have never seen 3 technicals called in 19 seconds with no squirmish between the 2 teams.”

I only noted it in passing; as a general rule I do my best not to get too worked up about the rampant typos, grammatical errors, and general language mangling that you can expect to find in such a forum. But today I came across the same mistake, this time on what seems to be a more serious news site, irishcentral.com:

“The ‘Mail’ is largely viewed as a barely localized counterpart of its UK version, and has been involved in several squirmishes with Irish authorities over its often controversial techniques to get stories …”

Even allowing for the fact that Ireland speaks a unique form of English, it’s still an incorrect usage.

I wondered if this is some sort of ongoing trend of language degradation that I am only belatedly picking up on, so I asked my good friend Google. Lo and behold, the first couple of pages of results are dominated by reports of a Fox News TV appearance by Sarah Palin in March 2011, when she referred to the NATO intervention in Libya as a “squirmish.” I only checked the first few pages of search results, so I can’t be sure, but the Palin malapropism appears to be the only documented incident of recent vintage. It’s certainly possible that the poster at hawkeyenation.com picked it up from news reports of Palin’s blunder, but is it likely that reports of the incident traveled across the Atlantic to Ireland? Or is this a more common mistake than I think, and all sorts of people are skirming in their seats during a tense squirmish?

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