Eggcorns, a new word for misused pears

fun with homonyms

Mixmatched pear of shoes?

Children eventually stop growing. The English language does not.

Most new words catch popular fancy for a while, and then drop out of site.

Quite a few eventually get recognized by major dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster just added 1,700 new words. “Eggcorn” now takes its place alongside malapropism, spoonerism, and mondegreen to describe a losing battle with using or understanding words.

A malapropism substitutes a completely wrong word, as when Mrs. Malaprop (in the third act of The Rivals by Richard Sheridan) declares, “Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” Not one of the italicized words means anything remotely like what she meant.

Eggcorn, on the other hand, sort of make sense, as when someone refers to “old-timers’ disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease. In 2003 a blogger noted that he knew a woman who said “egg corn” instead of “acorn” and that there was no word to describe that kind of mistake.

Linguist Geoffrey Pullam responded that “eggcorn” would be a very appropriate word. Its entry into a major dictionary’s word list indicates that, 12 years after the suggestion, “eggcorn” has demonstrated its usefulness and staying power.

How many of these have you encountered? 

  • firstable, for first of all
  • self phone for cell phone (with cameras for taking cellfies?)
  • dusk off for dust off
  • set and done for said and done
  • new leash on life for new lease (A car company keeping someone on a leash seems almost accurate!)
  • signal out for single out
  • cold slaw for cole slaw (I once put myself in danger of getting pushed off a train platform when a bunch of us were talking about Murphy’s Law, Parkinson’s Law, Gumperson’s Law, and the like, and I casually brought up Cole’s Law: thinly sliced cabbage.)
  • holland day sauce (or holiday’s sauce) for hollandaise
  • pansy-waist or pansy-waste for panty-waist
  • straddled with for saddled with
  • chuck it up or chock it up for chalk it up (Come to think of it, eggcorns and all the rest result when someone has only a hazy notion of what to say or write and just chucks it up.)
  • disingenuine for disingenuous
  • once such for one such
  • elk for ilk
  • youthamism or youthanism for euphemism
  • impremature for imprimatur
  • cacoughany for cacophony (the most creative misspelling I have seen for a long time!)
  • feeble position for fetal position
  • eardrop or ease drop for eavesdrop
  • car links for car lengths
  • front in center for front and center
  • mixmatch for mismatch
  • mixmash for mishmash
  • bloodgeon for bludgeon
  • ontray for entree (The French word for a course of a meal—American and British usage differs as to which one— entered English in the 18th century. Any earlier it would probably have become “ontray” immediately)
  • bran-new for brand-new
  • quickclaim for quitclaim
  • skimp milk for skim milk
  • physical year for fiscal year
  • soaping wet for soaking wet or sopping wet
  • tarter sauce for tartar sauce (tarter than what?)
  • garbledygook for gobbledygook
  • curve for curb (as in curve your enthusiasm)
  • strings and arrows for slings and arrows (Since neither slings nor arrows are still weapons of war, many people probably don’t understand the expression at all.)
  • coal-hearted for cold-hearted
  • dough-eyed for doe-eyed
  • upmost for utmost
  • leopard for leper, as in social leopard
  • limp nodes for lymph nodes
  • Via de la Rosa for Via Dolorosa

Many eggcorns resemble the struggles with choosing the right one of two or more homonyms that I have occasionally pointed out in my occasional series Misused Pears, except that eggcorns are mistakes in spoken English more than written English. In written English, eggcorns are often non-words, very bad spelling, instead of wrong choices.

I have published only misused pears I have found “in the wild.” For examples of eggcorns in the wild, check out The Eggcorn Database. I listed most, but not all of the entries in the first nine pages of I don’t know how many.

On May 29, 2015, the database claimed 643 eggcorn. It also has a search engine. Somehow it’s missing a couple of old favorites: two pees in a pot for two peas in a pod and pullet surprise for Pulitzer prize.

Although the word “eggcorn” is new, eggcorns are not. My grandmother had a friend who spoke of needing papermate for her coffee and I don’t remember what other gems. Centuries ago the Italian dance passamezzo became passy measure in England. More plausibly, the French contredanse became country dance.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by gadl.

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