Beware of the Eggcorn

acorn.large

The art of writing well requires of its artists the decision to be deliberate.  Anything other than writing that is deliberate will result in confusion, ennui, annoyance, or hilarity—or a combination of these—from the reader.  Often, something that is written is the only opportunity someone has to make an impression. Those who throw words on paper (or on an electronic device) without giving much thought to audience, diction (choice of words), syntax (order of words), meaning, grammatical standards, or purpose in their writing will inevitably produce something that is less worthwhile than it has to be and often funny in spite of the writer not intending to be funny.  The use of eggcorns is one way that writers unknowingly cause people to find humor where humor was not meant to be found.

From oxforddictionary.com, the definition of ‘eggcorn’ (noun) is a word or phrase that results from a mishearing or misinterpretation of another, an element of the original being substituted for one that sounds very similar or identical.  A professor of linguistics, Geoffrey Collum, coined this term in response to an article on the web site, Language Log.  In this article, Mark Liberman related the story of a woman who thought the word ‘acorn’ was actually ‘eggcorn’ – and this phenomenon was named.  People use eggcorns all the time.  One of the most popular places to find eggcorns is in the car while people are singing along to the radio. There was a commercial on TV a few years ago parodying this exact situation: two guys are walking down the street confidently singing what they think are the lyrics to “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash.  One sings, “Lock the cash box! Lock the cash box!” His friend asks him, “Isn’t it ‘stop the cat box’?”  They agree that those words make the most sense and then both proceed to sing, “The sheep don’t like it.”  If you know the song, the eggcorn is hilarious. Dailywritingtips.com lists the following as common examples of eggcorns:

  • a tough road to hoe (a tough row to hoe)
  • antidotal evidence (anecdotal evidence)
  • bonified (bona fide)
  • bread and breakfast (bed and breakfast)
  • duck tape (duct tape, now confused by the existence of a brand of duct tape known as Duck Tape)
  • fast majority (vast majority)
  • flaw in the ointment (fly in the ointment)
  • hone in (home in)
  • internally grateful (eternally grateful)
  • mute point (moot point)
  • old timer’s disease (Alzheimer’s Disease)
  • on the spurt of the moment (on the spur of the moment)
  • outer body experience (out of body experience)
  • put the cat before the horse (put the cart before the horse)
  • throws of passion (throes of passion)
  • windshield factor (wind chill factor)

There are many ways to misuse language, and in order to communicate effectively, everyone should strive to use words correctly.  An interesting fact about the eggcorn is that linguists agree that using an eggcorn requires creativity and the use of context (i.e.; a person who uses an eggcorn is not simply ignorant).  An eggcorn differs from a malapropism, which is simply using the wrong word out of ignorance or laziness.  People utter eggcorns because they use all of the information available to them to justify the word they are substituting.  Go back and read the examples carefully; a person could easily justify the misused versions of the above phrases.  The word ‘malapropism’ comes from a character in the play, “The Rivals,” named Mrs. Malaprop, who frequently uses incorrect words.  In the play, one of the malapropisms she uses is: “Illiterate him quite from your memory” (obliterate).  In another example from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing,” Officer Dogberry says, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (apprehended two suspicious persons).  No one can justify using ‘illiterate’ for ‘obliterate’ or ‘comprehended and auspicious’ for ‘apprehended and suspicious’ in these two examples.

There are plenty of instances of famous people using malapropisms in public.  Here are some of those (also from dictionary.com):

  • “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.” (prevent) – Richard Daley, former mayor of Chicago
  • “He was a man of great statue.” (stature) – Thomas Menino, mayor of Boston
  • “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (electoral votes) – Yogi Berra
  • “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.” (cliff-hanger) – Wes Westrum
  • “Be sure and put some of those neutrons on it.” (croutons) – Mike Smith
  • “It’s got lots of installation.” (insulation) – Mike Smith speaking about a new coat
  • “Create a little dysentery among the ranks.” (dissension) – Christopher Moltisanti from “The Sopranos”
  • “This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.” (unparalled) – Gib Lewis, Texas Speaker of the House

People have misused words for as long as words have been used.  Sometimes it’s simply funny, but as illustrated in the examples of malapropisms used by famous people, the misuse of language can also be embarrassing because, rightly or wrongly, it is a way for the public to make a judgment about a person’s intelligence.  While it is nearly impossible to avoid misspeaking, it is entirely possible to avoid misusing language in writing.  It is justifiable to make a judgment call about a person’s intelligence (if not intelligence, then at least work ethic) based on that person’s writing; there are too many available resources to writers out there.  Google should be a writer’s best friend.  Even better, no writer should be willing to do without a good editor.

About hannarock

I'm a wife and mother, a teacher and a writer, a liver of life. I write about this fabulous journey I'm on. The ups of life inspire me and the downs of life inspire me. Basically, I have a running conversation with everyone and no one in my brain, and sometimes I find a few minutes to sit down and pull it out of my head. That's what you'll find here. I love life and I love writing about it.
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