Tall Oaks From Tiny Eggcorns

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Do you use eggcorns in your speech and writing?

Don’t answer too quickly! Most of us do use eggcorns, at least occasionally. But by their nature, they’re something we do without being aware of it.

Although eggcorns are common, the word isn’t. Not yet, anyway.

Eggcorn

An eggcorn is an expression in which we unknowinglyreplace one of its usual words with another, similar-sounding word – but the expression still makes sense.

To be sure, it may not make much sense – just a bit. It may not make the same kind of sense as the original, intended expression. The substitution may seem comical. But it remains to some extent meaningful.

For example, we may refer to “old-timer’s disease” (meaning Alzheimer’s disease). We may say we’re “happy as a clown” (meaning happy as a clam).

Technically, we may be using a “wrong” expression (wrong only in the sense that it’s customarily something else). But there’s nothing obvious to tip us off to our mistake. More often than not, it is old-timers who get Alzheimer’s disease. And many clowns, if not most, do wear big painted smiles (except for those sad-faced ones). I’m not sure how happy clams really are anyway, or how we would know!

An eggcorn is distinct from a malapropism – an accidental word-substitution resulting in an expression that makes no sense.

At least that’s how lexical authorities try to differentiate eggcorns from malapropisms. The problem is, many so-called malapropisms make sense to the person using them.

For example, on many long lists of malapropisms nowadays, you’ll find “for all intensive purposes”. But you’re just as likely to find it on long lists of common eggcorns. Same with lots of other expressions.

Of course, the traditional expression is “for all intents and purposes”. Those who consider “intensive purposes” a mere malapropism clearly believe intensive doesn’t make any sense here.

But doesn’t it? If you pursue a purpose with great intensity, isn’t that an “intensive purpose”? If this makes sense to you, then to you it’s an eggcorn, not a malapropism.

These categories tend to be both arbitrary and subjective.

Be that as it may, there are thousands of ways we can accidentally mangle a standard expression to create a brand new one that remains meaningful. Sometimes even more meaningful. That’s an eggcorn.

The term “eggcorn” was coined in 2003 when linguists were discussing a woman who referred innocently to an oak seed – an acorn – as an “egg corn”.

Now I would have considered this a simple malapropism. Egg corn sounds utterly nonsensical to me. But the professor who submitted the example apparently thought it had a kind of logic, thus differentiating it from a malapropism.

Perhaps the lady who said “egg corn” thought the tree seeds resembled large, egg-shaped grains of corn. Maybe she was right.

The linguists discussing this kind of error decided it needed its own name, and they named it from the example: eggcorn.

Some eggcorns result in a phrase that sounds subtly different from the original. Others sound exactly the same, and thus are evident only in writing.

An example of the latter is “baited breath”. The original – and presumably correct – usage is “bated breath”. Bated means in great suspense.

But about a third of the time nowadays, people using this expression say or write “baited”. Does this make sense? How might one’s breath be baited?

Well, if you’re a cat, and you munch cheese or fish with the idea of thus attracting a mouse, I guess your breath could be considered baited. So maybe this is an eggcorn instead of a malapropism.

Once you get the idea, listen for eggcorns. It’s great fun. You’ll certainly start noticing, and you’ll probably notice yourself using them too. I know I did!

Of course, once you know you’re using an eggcorn, you aren’t! Part of the definition is that you do it unknowingly. Once you recognize it, you’re just making a pun.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


Comments

Tall Oaks From Tiny Eggcorns — 6 Comments

  1. Eggcorn, malapropism, spoonerism, hoplology, Freudian slip, slip of the tongue – I don’t care what you call them, but, they can sure transform a dull monologue into an entertaining event.

    • Fully agreed, John. Except I don’t know the word “hoplology”. Might you be willing to elaborate? What exactly is it, and how does it differ from the other labels here?

  2. After re-reading over some text messages I realized I used ‘eggcoms’ often. Being aware of them now makes me laugh.
    i laugh like a chess-sa-peek cat (eggcom)

    • Tyrone, this is wonderful! One reason I write these word posts is to help myself be more aware of my own speech and writing. For me, at least, it works — and knowing it helps others in the same way brings me joy.

      One thing I did, in composing this post, was web-search “eggcorn examples”. There are sites that list hundreds. I found, scanning these, that there were plenty of eggcorns I was using. Time and again, my reaction was, “You mean that’s the way it’s supposed be said?”

      Of course, “supposed to be” is always a slippery concept in language. Especially with eggcorns! Once enough people use a particular expression, it becomes “customary” or “standard”. Then it’s no longer an eggcorn. For example, some folks say “all set and done”. That’s an eggcorn because the more traditional version is “all said and done”, But if most folks start saying “set” instead of “said”, it will be the new standard.

      English changes like this all the time. In my view, this provides a wonderful antidote to the temptation to take language too seriously. And once we’re more relaxed about our words, we can be more relaxed about ourselves.

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