Eggcorns? Here, here!

Guest contribution by Sally Evans-Darby

On first hearing the word ‘eggcorn’, you might think you’ve misheard it. Surely a word at once so humorous and so bizarre (corns and eggs just don’t go together) must be made up, or mispronounced.

The delightful thing is that it is precisely both these things – made up, quite unintentionally, and conjured into being by a mispronunciation of the word ‘acorn’. It’s a relatively new term, first popularised by linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman on their Language Log in 2003.

Professor Liberman (a phonetician at the University of Pennsylvania) remarked on the case of a woman he had heard pronouncing ‘acorn’ as ‘eggcorn’ and apparently fixed in the belief that this was correct. (The earliest usage of ‘eggcorn’ as ‘acorn’ is cited in an 1844 letter from an American frontiersman.) In response, his colleague Professor Pullum suggested they dub all instances of such ‘mispronunciations’ as eggcorns.

So the eggcorn was born; but what exactly is it? We might start by looking at what it’s not:

It’s not a malapropism

A malapropism, coined in honour of Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, is when one word is exchanged for another similar one to create a nonsensical expression. It’s a form of word play, although it can be humorously unintentional too.

Some of Mrs Malaprop’s famous examples include ‘she’s as headstrong as an allegory [alligator]!’ and ‘I would have my daughter instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious [contiguous] countries’.

It’s not a mondegreen

Another fun and relatively recent form of word slip is the mondegreen, coined by writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. It concerns the mishearing of song or poem lyrics that create new and often humorous alternative meanings. Wright had heard the Scottish ballad The Bonny Earl of Moray as a child:

                Thou hae slay the Earl of Moray

                And laid him on the green.

The young Wright had misheard this as ‘And Lady Mondegreen’, imagining the Earl and his Lady dying together. It was only later she found out the true (less romantic) lyric.

There are scores of such reimagined verses, some of them manufactured to sound funny, but here are a few genuine ones of my own:

‘The girl with colitis goes by’ for ‘The girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, The Beatles). I was convinced this was the lyric long before I knew what colitis was.

‘Just brush my teeth before you leave me’ for ‘Just brush my cheek before you leave me’ (Angel Of The Morning, Juice Newton). This was one of my Mum’s – she was always puzzled by such a dentally oriented relationship.

‘I walk on frogs when you are not here’ for ‘My world crumbles when you are not here’ (I Try, Macy Gray). Okay, this one didn’t make any sense at all – I knew it had to be wrong.

It’s not a spoonerism

Probably one of the better-known forms of word play is the spoonerism, named after Reverend William Spooner (1844-1930) who often switched parts of his words around accidentally. His most famous examples include ‘a well-boiled icicle’ for ‘a well-oiled bicycle’ and ‘Is the bean dizzy?’ for ‘Is the Dean busy?’.

According to some sources, it wasn’t just vowels and consonants he switched around – it appears his entire thought pattern had a sort of back-to-front logic to it. A story goes that he once sent a message to a colleague requesting that he come to see him immediately. The same message had the post-script: ‘All now resolved, there is no need to come’.

So what is it?

The eggcorn is distinct from the above three idiosyncrasies because while it is a case of replacing one word for another to create a new meaning, that meaning is often logical and creative, rather than nonsensical as in a malapropism.

Here are some of the best ones I’ve come across:

  • Old timer’s disease: Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Rest-bite: Respite
  • Preying mantis: Praying mantis
  • Lame man’s terms: Layman’s terms
  • Half-asked effort: Half-assed effort
  • Daring-do: Derring-do
  • Like a bowl in a china shop: Like a bull in a china shop
  • Pus jewels: Pustules
  • Nip it in the butt: Nip it in the bud
  • A mute point: A moot point
  • Throws of passion: Throes of passion
  • Beyond approach: Beyond reproach
  • For all intensive purposes: For all intents and purposes

And, of course, there’s the one in the title of this blog.

While eggcorns begin as unintentional slips of the tongue, they can act as a fascinating window on the human brain and how it translates thoughts into spoken words. They might begin with an individual’s mistake, but if they become an epidemic of an entire discourse community, they can become accepted alternatives and even make it into dictionaries.

A good example is ‘chaise longue’ (from the French for ‘long chair’), which in some US and Australian dictionaries now has the alternative ‘chaise lounge’. Of course chaise longues are made for lounging in, so calling it such makes sense, even if it is technically incorrect.

Such accepted usage of an originally incorrect term becomes a folk etymology. Somewhere between the eggcorn and the folk etymology is the dreaded mumpsimus (meaning someone who persists in their incorrect usage even when told it is incorrect). Along that scale, a phrase might be invented, continued to be used incorrectly by the branded mumpsimus, and eventually make it into dictionaries (thereby, presumably, vindicating said mumpsimus).

As Professor Pullum says on Language Log, ‘It would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known.’ His colleague Professor Liberman describes them as ‘tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity’.

You can contribute your own eggcorns for posterity and browse through those already ‘discovered’ at The Eggcorn Database.

Finally, just for fun, here is a poem all about eggcorns.

by Sally Evans-Darby at Write Sense Media

Select references

Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200602/word-watch-the-eggcorn

Boston Globe http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200602/word-watch-the-eggcorn

World Wide Words http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-egg3.htm

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9 comments

  1. Great essay, and I love the link. My daughter when she was younger used to always say that she had a “headegg,” when she meant headache. I thought it was the cutest thing; I could never bring myself to correct her. Eventually, she figured it out on her own.

  2. Thanks Brendano – yes, those ones from the IT Crowd were very funny, although the nonsensical nature of ‘pedal stool’ suggests it might be more of a malapropism than an eggcorn – I guess it’s open to interpretation!

    And jmhofwiw – ‘headegg’ is lovely! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Fantastic website you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics talked about
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