What is an Eggcorn?
An eggcorn a substituted word or phrase which replaces an original, similar sounding word or words in a phrase, which although different in meaning from the original, also makes some kind of logical sense, such as ‘for all intensive purposes’ rather than ‘for all intents and purposes’. Linguistics professor Geoffrey Pulling coined the term in 2003 in response to an article by Mark Liberman on the website Language Log <Language Log: Egg corns: folk etymology, malapropism, mondegreen, ??? (upenn.edu)>, which discussed substituting the word eggcorn for acorn. The word seems plausible – acorns are egg shaped, they crack open to reveal new life, and depending on your accent, you may even pronounce the words in a very similar manner. Since no particular term for this exact word substitution phenomena existed at the time, ‘eggcorn’ has been adopted.
If you want to get all fancy about it, according to Wikipedia, eggcorns ‘can be described as an intra-lingual phono-semantic matching’ and are also sometimes known as ‘oronyms’, but that doesn’t sound nearly as much fun.
Eggcorns vs Malapropisms
Eggcorns are a distinct subset of malapropisms, a term derived from the French meaning ‘being improper or inappropriate’, and popularised in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. His character Mrs Malaprop misspoke many words to comic effect, including ‘He is the very pineapple [pinnacle] of politeness’. William Shakespeare referred to the figures of speech as Dogberryisms after his character Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, who ‘comprehended auspicious persons’ rather than apprehending suspicious ones.
Whereas the substituted word creates a nonsensical and generally comic phrase in a malapropism (e.g. ‘a suppository [repository] of all wisdom’ as uttered by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013) and is an error of understanding by the speaker, an eggcorn displays a certain logic and comprehension of proper meaning. Often an eggcorn substitutes an archaic, unfamiliar or obscure expression with a more common terminology or spelling, such as baited breath (your breath has been caught, after all), rather than bated (which is a shortened form of ‘abated’ and used almost nowhere else).
Eggcorns vs Mondegreens
You may be familiar with mondegreens, a term derived from Syliva Wright’s mishearing the lyrics ‘They hae slain the Earl o’Moray/And laid him on the green’ from a Scottish ballad as the murder of both the Earl and his Lady Mondegreen. Mondegreens are aural errors and are generally restricted to music and poetry. They occur as a result of unclear enunciation, unusual lyrics, odd phrasing, accents and our own confirmation bias. Human brains are always searching for patterns – to connect what we want to hear rather than what we actually hear. This is particularly prevalent when we listen to songs sung in a different language.
In common with malapropisms, mondegreens are most often nonsensical and often individual errors. My four-year-old self was convinced that a certain Christmas carol began ‘Deck the Halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la lah la la la lah/Jesus is a kewpie dolly…’ I had a collection of small plastic dolls on sticks won on sideshow alley at local shows. Quite why I needed Jesus to join the gang, I’m not sure.
Kewpie dolls on bamboo sticks. Image: Pinterest
Some songs are famous for their commonly misheard lyrics however. In a live performance of Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix acknowledged the phenomenon, singing the wrong lyrics ‘excuse me while I kiss this guy’ rather than the correct ‘excuse me while I kiss the sky’. Bon Jovi’s 80s anthem Livin’ on a Prayer may actually be improved by ‘it doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not’ rather than the official ‘it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.’
Eggcorns vs folk etymology
Malapropisms and mondegreens are often confined to a single writer or speaker, whereas eggcorns are often shared by many and are an example of the evolution of the English language in action. As original meanings are lost, or words fall out of favour, or loan words from other languages are assimilated into English, we substitute similar sounding/looking words with which we are familiar to bring more (logical) life to a phrase.
Words and phrases which have been completely assimilated into the language are known as folk etymology. For example, I doubt anyone examining a ragged cuticle would recognise the origin of hangnail as the Old English ang- + nægel (‘anguished nail’) and which used to refer to a corn on the foot. From at least the seventeenth century we have massaged both the word and its meaning to what we commonly understand today. Similarly, you can thank our desire to Anglicise loan words next time you have occasion to curse a cockroach in your path, rather than the Spanish ‘cucaracha’.
An eggcorn set out in the wild may be left as an individual idiosyncrasy, picked up by others in a social group, or spread to most speakers of the language. Some eggcorns are now almost ubiquitous (or at least have higher hit rates on Google in the eggcorn form vs the original expression). For example, straight-laced (rather than strait-laced). Strait means tight, and the expression derives from how sharply women’s corset strings were pulled, not how neatly vertical. However, since straight can also mean unwavering and upright, it makes logical sense within the expression.
An even more likely candidate to become a folk etymology is just desserts (rather than just deserts). De’SERT (emphasis on the second syllable) meaning deserved is used in this expression and almost nowhere else these days. If we see the word desert, we immediately envisage a hot and sandy landscape, to be pronounced DES’ert (emphasis on the first syllable). Desserts, on the other hand, are pronounced as per the first instance and should be consumed as often as possible, whether they are deserved or not.
Firstable, <The Eggcorn Database (lascribe.net)> includes over 600 examples and is the goal standard collection of eggcorns. I’m internally grateful for the site and spent many an hour in gameful employment searching the archive until stopped by a mindgrain from reading any more garbeldegook.
I may not understand all the right social morays in this doggy dog world and be something of a social leopard, but eardropping on eggcorns is one of my favourite passed times. I like to stand stalk still near the slithered almonds and the cold slaw on the buffet table at parties, biting my time, waiting for those chickens to come home to roast. You can easily pick who is lack toast and tolerant, but I don’t batter an eyelid and my lips are steeled.
I do my upmost not to snob anyone, but my strategy is not fullproof. Call me coal hearted, but I will signal out ill-mannered people and their elk behaving like a bowl in a china shop, and let them know that if they think such behaviour is acceptable, they have another thing coming. That usually makes them give up the goat and take a parting of the waves.
If the party is showing the wholemarks of being a bit of a damp squid, it’s a far gone conclusion I will go home and make note of my wild variety of eggcorns in the colour coated folders I keep especially for the purpose.
I hope it has donged on you that actually, that’s a bold-faced lie.
When all is set and done, I’ll cut to the cheese. From the gecko, this has been my hand fisted attempt to set out some of my favourite eggcorns. It may be a mute point, but I hope these have made you as happy as a clown!