Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Eggcorns. Grit to my mill! (1)

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On 8 December 2017, some British newspapers picked up a story about “eggcorns”. The Independent headed it “The 30 most misused phrases in the English language”.

According to the Indy, a British opticians and hearing care company “surveyed 2,000 British adults and found that 35 per cent of them used eggcorns without even realising they were saying something incorrectly”.

As its introduction, the article (drawn, I suspect from experience, more or less verbatim from the company’s press release) stated, “New research has revealed the 30 most commonly misused phrases in the UK. Known as eggcorns, the bizarre phrases often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings.” (The full list is at the end of this blog.)

Clearly, this is not serious “research”. For starters, what particular “English language” was being sampled? For example, were people recorded over a period of days, weeks, or months, and were the recordings then transcribed and analysed? Somehow, I think not. And a score of other questions could be asked.

Let’s leave methodology aside, though, and hone in [sic] on the purported “definition” of eggcorns: “bizarre phrases [that] often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings”.

No, sirree. eggcorns are quite the opposite of “nonsensical”: they are the hearers’ attempt to make sense of phrases that strike them as nonsensical by making them meaningful – at least for those hearers.

I’ve pontificated previously about eggcorns in general here, and about specific ones here and here. But, at the risk of repetition, here’s the OED definition again:

An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.”

Incidentally, I’d highlight “reinterpretation” here, rather then “mishearing”: the sound stream reaching my ear may be the real McCoy, but my brain has to interpret it somehow by turning an “unknown unknown” into a sort of “known unknown”, if you catch my drift, and the result is an eggcorn.

The term was coined in 2003 by the eminent linguist Professor Geoff Pullum1, and derives from a “reinterpretation” of the “word” acorn2.

Oh, so it’s just a fancypants, linguists’ term for malapropism, right?

No. That’s why it was needed.

Malapropism involves “The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect.” President Bush was famous for them, e.g. “We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers.”—Houston, Sept. 6, 2000.

OK. So, it’s like folk etymology, then?

(You mean “folk etymology” in the meaning of “the transformation of one word or lexeme into another which then becomes institutionalized”, such as crayfish from Middle English, crevice, crevisse, with the –ice, –isse element reinterpreted as “fish”; or chaise lounge [recognised in some dictionaries] from chaise longue?)

No, because, in theory at any rate, eggcorns are the productions of one speaker, rather than of a speech community.

So, what defines an eggcorn?

Well, apart from being the production of one speaker – and such are going to be very hard to find written evidence for, aren’t they? – they often tend to differ from the original by a single sound, occasionally two. An example of that is damp squid for damp squib3. Alternatively, actually, they sound exactly the same as the original, but their existence only emerges when someone writes them down, as in ex-patriot for expatriate.

What’s more, many idioms that are eggcornized contain a word that rarely, or even never, occurs outside the idiom. What exactly is “grist“, anyway, and what is it doing in my mill? And what is a “squib“?

What evidence is there for the claim made?

I believe that any “research” mentioned in the article would be along these lines: the market research company surveying people created a list of thirty phrases with their original and eggcorn versions, and then asked their sample to say which was correct. If that is the case (and I’ll try to find out), the statement “35% of them used eggcorns” needs to be deconstructed. It could, after all, merely mean that 35 per cent of the sample got 1 phrase wrong, out of 30. More probably, however, there will have been a range: i.e. some answered 1, some 2, some 3, etc. (though none will have answered 30).

It would be interesting to know which were the most commonly misused, but that is too much to hope for.

More importantly, though, if the company created the list, it must have drawn on existing sources. That, as a bit of an eggcorn groupie and having myself done PR campaigns based on eggcorns, is what I suspect from the list, and from the dubious status of at least a couple of entries on it (“to be pacific”? “circus-sized”?)

For the moment, I’m going to analyse and comment on the first 12  in the list. But that’s material for another blog. Otherwise, this one will be too long.

  1. To be pacific (instead of to be specific)
  2. An escape goat (instead of a scapegoat)
  3. Damp squid (instead of damp squib)
  4. Nipped it in the butt (instead of nipped in the bud)
  5. On tender hooks (instead of on tenterhooks)
  6. Cold slaw (instead of coleslaw)
  7. A doggie-dog world (instead of dog-eat-dog world)
  8. Circus-sized (instead of circumcised)
  9. Lack toast and tolerant (instead of lactose intolerant)
  10. Got off scotch free (instead of got off scot-free)
  11. To all intensive purposes (instead of to all intents and purposes)
  12. Boo to a ghost (instead of boo to a goose)
  13. Card shark (instead of card sharp)
  14. Butt naked (instead of buck naked)
  15. Hunger pains (instead of hunger pangs)
  16. Tongue and cheek (instead of tongue-in-cheek)
  17. It’s a mute point (instead of moot point)
  18. Pass mustard (instead of pass muster)
  19. Just deserves (instead of just deserts)
  20. Foe par (instead of faux pas)
  21. Social leopard (instead of social leper)
  22. Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  23. Curled up in the feeble position (instead of curled up in the foetal position)
  24. Curve your enthusiasm (instead of curb your enthusiasm)
  25. Heimlich remover (instead of Heimlich manoeuvre)
  26. Ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
  27. Extract revenge (instead of exact revenge)
  28. Self -depreciating (instead of self-deprecating)
  29. As dust fell (instead of as dusk fell)
  30. Last stitch effort (instead of last ditch effort)

1 The link to the Language Log post discussing the issue is here.

2 As the OED shows, the person who pronounced acorn as “eggcorn” and thus inspired the linguistic term was not alone, and not the first.

1844   S. G. McMahan Let. 16 June in A. L. Hurtado John Sutter (2006) 130   I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn [acorn] bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.

1983   Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa24 Apr. 23 (caption)    Paper sacks held a variety of ‘recyclable’ goods including ladies’ shoes, pine cones, walnuts, used toys and, according to their sign, eggcorns (acorns).

If you say the word acorn in a sort of Texan drawl, you might hear how it could become eggcorn. Or, as Mark Liebermann puts it: “Note, by the way, that the author of this mis-hearing may be a speaker of the dialect in which ‘beg’ has the same vowel as the first syllable of ‘bagel’. For these folks, ‘egg corn’ and ‘acorn’ are really homonyms, if the first is not spoken so as to artificially separate the words.”

3 Jeanette Winterson is quoted as follows. Her explanation shows how very much eggcorns do make sense: “I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

5 thoughts on “Eggcorns. Grit to my mill! (1)

  1. Some spoonerisms can also have a certain degree of meaning. Perhaps there really WAS a half warmed fish in the Rev Spooner’s breast. Perhaps he did indeed want to toast the queer old Dean. My own spoonerisms, which alas are more frequent than I would like, are just stuff and nonsense …. “I’m giving a chine and weese party next week,” …. “You deserve a low, slingering death”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Jeremy

    Looking forward to hearing what are the other misused phrases. Here in New Zealand (in contrast to what I remember from my years being brought up in England) asphalt is generally pronounced ashfelt. This suggests a similar development to that in your eggcorn example.

    And by the bye, seeing your mention of damp squid, I am reminded that when I was in Cyprus a few years ago I saw a board outside a restaurant listing the the various food items it had on offer, and one of them was ‘fried squit’. (I didn’t ordure it.)

    Paul Star, Dunedin NZ.

    Like

    • Hi, Paul

      The pronunciation “ash-phalt” is pretty widespread, I’d say, and one I can remember since childhood, and I suspect required less mouth effort. But the spelling “ashfelt” is new to me, so, thanks for that.
      As for damp squit, a spooky coincidence: — see my blog, to be published tomorrow.

      Like

  3. Yes, “in theory at any rate, eggcorns are the productions of one speaker, rather than of a speech community.” But some eggcorns spread from an individual, and become a part of standard English. Think of shamefaced (with no relation to the face), sandblind (where blindness is not cause by a sandstorm) and wormwood (which contains no wood.) These examples are within English, but many (including your crayfish example) are from foreign words and phrases. One nice example is forlorn hope in the sense of a faint or vain hope, a reanalysis of the Dutch term for a lost troop.

    Liked by 1 person

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