Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Eggcorns

Egged on

When the hollandaise sauce becomes the holiday sauce,we have spotted an eggcorn.

An eggcorn is a spontaneous reshaping of a word or an expression into a different, but similar sounding, word or expression that also makes sense.

Easter egg cozies

These handmade Easter egg cozies by the Yarn Kitchen can be found at Etsy.com

The word eggcornis itself an eggcorn. It comes from acorn,and it is a reinterpretation of what that word might be. We can see how it makes some sense: Acorns are shaped a little bit like eggs, and they give birth to trees. So they’re sort of like an egg; hence acornreinterpreted as eggcorn.

The term eggcornto refer to this phenomenon is credited to Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and his fellow bloggers Geoff Pullum (University of Edinburgh) and Arnold Zwicky (Stanford University). They all contribute regularly to a wonderful language blog called Language Log.

There is an ever-growing eggcorn database online, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites.

If you hear someone talking about “all intensive purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes,” that’s an eggcorn. Again, we can see how the new expression makes some sense. If your purposes are serious, maybe they feel intensive — so you can reinterpret intents and purposesas intensive purposes.

Sometimes people say they are curling up in “feeble position,” rather than “fetal position.” This also makes sense because when you are in fetal position, you are weak and vulnerable; you are a little bit feeble.

You’ll sometimes hear people getting a “new leash on life” instead of a “new lease on life.”

I particularly like when people say they are going to “nip it in the butt” rather than “nip it in the bud.” Of course nipping it in the bud is to get “it” when it’s young — very early on. But we can see how speakers could make sense of nipping it in the butt, too, because you certainly would want to do that before it comes back and bites you in the same place.

Other eggcorns include: one in the sameinstead of one and the same;front in centerinstead of front and center;or cut off your nose despite your faceinstead of cut off your nose to spite your face.

One that I learned about recently is easedropinstead of eavesdrop.The verb eavesdropstems from the idea that you may be listening in on someone’s conversation while or by standing under the eaves outside their window. But eavesdropping is fairly easy to do (sometimes you can barely help doing it when you’re, say, sitting in a coffee shop), so let’s just call it easedropping.

I hope that next time you easedrop or eavesdrop on some of the conversations happening all around you, you’ll now spot some new eggcorns. And when you do, you can go check the database to see if they’re already there.

This video appears courtesy of LSA Today. Curzan’s observations on language also can be heard on the Michigan Radio program “That’s What They Say.”

Comments

  1. Booth Muller - 1969

    Ann –
    I think you’re too easy on those who commit such crimes against language. Eggcorns are, it seems to me, evidence of sloppy thinking. If you don’t know what a word or phrase means, you shouldn’t use it. For example, I personally avoid using the phrase, “the whole nine yards,” because I don’t really understand where it came from. I’ve considered substituting “the whole ten yards” or possibly “the whole hundred yards” as a football metaphor, but have rejected the idea because I figure my listeners will assume I’m guilty of using an eggcorn of my own.
    I know I’m sounding curmudgeonly here but, in all seriousness, it seems to me this is symptomatic of reprehensibly careless use of the language. This sort of failure to use accurate terminology in a correct way is one of the things that makes it so difficult to conduct useful political discourse, because so often the two parties to an argument are using the same words but are actually attributing different meanings to them. We need shared understanding of what we mean in order to understand what each other means. In other words, if we don’t agree on definitions (probably without even wholly realizing it) then it’ll be tough to reach any meaningful agreement about anything.
    In fact, I think that would be an interesting topic for you, Ann – an exploration of different meanings – unique definitions – for words and phrases in political discussions (or union negotiations, or…) by parties on each side of the argument, and how that affects the ultimate outcome of the intercourse.
    So, are eggcorns as innocently amusing as you kinda imply? I don’t think so. It’s true they’re not harmful in and of themselves (or “in an oven’s shelves,” perhaps). Nevertheless, I believe they’re symptomatic of a degree of imprecise speech and careless thinking which can have serious negative implications for a society.

    Reply

    • James Polichak - 2003

      Your hopes will never be met, unfortunately, as research in cognitive science on how knowledge is represented in the human brain.
      The problem is that people who don’t understand something frequently don’t know that they don’t understand that thing.
      In technical terms, lack of knowledge is accompanied by lack of meta-knowledge.
      The person producing the eggcorn doesn’t think they are producing an eggcorn. Or they are at least rather confident that they are using the word or expression in the standard manner.
      Ultimately, your general conception of how human brains work is flawed. Use of an eggcorn is not “sloppy” thinking. Sloppy thinking means that the person should be capable of being aware that they are not putting in enough effort to produce the correct result. The same is true for the notion of “careless” thinking.
      People have varying levels of intelligence. Many people cannot understand different types of information beyond a certain level. And again, this often comes paired with an inability to judge whether they are performing well or not.
      People also have different life circumstances. Many people are extremely busy doing things to simply survive and take care of their personal and family responsibilities. They don’t necessarily have the luxury of investigating whether they are getting an expression right or pronouncing every word they use in what is considered the standard manner for the time and place by those who do have the luxury of judging their language use and that of others.
      Those of us who are here have had the opportunity to have an education that, from our childhoods, set us on a path to some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world. Not everyone has that opportunity, regardless of intelligence.
      I have a PhD in cognitive science, and my research focus is on language comprehension. I also have a JD from Michigan. But I’m the son of a factory worker and a salesman. Without hundreds of thousands of dollars of scholarships and graduate student stipends, I wouldn’t be here writing this.
      And my parents are not as intelligent or as educated as I am. Nor are they as interested in language. Should I judge them as inferior or dangerous when they mispronounce a word or misspell a word in an email? They aren’t sloppy thinkers, or careless. They are functioning at the level that their natural abilities and lifetime educational histories permit them to do.
      Within certain groups that I associate with, knowing at least 3 languages is expected. Do you meet that criterion? In others, a good understanding particle physics and quantum mechanics is the norm. In others, knowledge of human and primate evolutionary history is standard. Elsewhere, military history is the subject of interest, and what happened at Kursk is common knowledge.
      And for my actual employment, it’s the ability to analyze evidence for large-scale litigation and regulatory investigations via complex software systems. Often evidence in 3 or more languages.
      I’m unusual. I process information extremely quickly and remember it well without need for studying it. I passed through 5 majors as an undergraduate in my 4 years – physics, English lit, philosophy, visual arts, and psychology. I taught myself evolutionary biology, genetics, and anthropology. Most people I know share only one or two of those regions of knowledge with me.
      I think that knowledge of physics is extremely important. But I don’t expect most people to know anything about it other than their personal intuition based on their life experiences. I could say that they are sloppy and careless in their thoughts about some of the most basic and critical factors that shape the universe and permit humans to exist.
      But I don’t. And I’d advise having more sympathy with regard to people in general, as most of them are not as lucky as you to have had the opportunities for education and the natural abilities to take advantage of those opportunities.
      Also, try reading a social psychology textbook. Many of my friends and colleagues, none of whom are social psychologists consider social psychology to be the most important class they ever took. With statistics a close second.

      Reply

  2. Eleanor Segal - Med School 1966

    When that happens in songs, columnist Jon Carroll from SF Chronicle has reported that they are called mondegreens: mishearing of song lyrics to mean something else; in this case a song about a dying lord and they “laid him on the Green” became Lord and Lady Mondegreen. (In Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis says I don’t want no other love, you’re the only one I’m dreaming of…I always heard I’m digging up.) Anyway we all have songs with misheard lyrics and I thought you might be interested…the original coiner of Mondegreen is obscure.

    Reply

  3. Michael Klossner - 1968

    “Safety deposit box” for “safe deposit box.” “Safe de-” sounds like “safety” so they use “safety.” They know “posit” is not the right word here, so they double “de” and get “safety deposit.” Maybe this isn’t a real eggcorn, but when the British conquered Bengal in the 18th century, one of their enemies was a local leader Siraj ud-Daulah. British troops referred to him as “Sir Roger Dowler.”

    Reply

  4. Caroline B Smith - 1957

    My favorite is the one that popped up as a high school classmate was complaining about the reunion committee’s lack of having a printed booklet to hand out a the reunion that listed among other things, “the diseased.” Wasn’t quite sure whether I was required to ask all classmates how their health was or not.

    Reply

  5. Trinna Frever - 1991

    I’ve had students use the term “butt naked” in essays (e.g., “before reform, insane asylums were rife with neglect, and patients might be left butt-naked on the floor for days.”).
    In one case, when I explained that the correct term was “buck naked,” the student actually wouldn’t believe me, because the other spelling made more sense to him. Next time, I’ll send him to the database! Glad to have it as a reference.
    Come to think of it, that same sentence may have had “ripe with neglect” instead of “rife.” Back to the database!
    Though I wonder if some of eggcorns –like “a new leash on life”– started as puns (“shelter dog gets new leash on life”). Maybe there’s a future essay in the eggcorn/pun connection?

    Reply

  6. Tina (Smith) Creguer - UM-D CASL 1986

    I could of died when I read this. Facebook is chalk full of these misgnomers. (I could go on, but I’m making my own skin crawl.) Love this article. Thanks for the awesome term of eggcorn. Can’t wait until I see it called egghorn…. 🙂

    Reply

    • Jane Riebe-Rodgers

      Booth hit the nail on the head. It is also my opinion that abuse and misuse of the English language is not simply the result of innocent errors.
      I will take this opportunity to comment on one of the newest eggcorns: Brain fart. It is correctly a brain farct. Unfortunately, those who have not come from a clinical arena do not know that ‘farct’ is actually a form of infarction. I, frankly, find “brain fart” to be an offensive term.

      Reply

  7. Marae Price - 1978

    I have to agree with Booth Muller’s comment that many eggcorns are the result of sloppy thinking; sloppy speech or just plain ignorance may also contribute. That said, I do get a kick out of eggcorns when they are used intentionally for effect. My favorite is my own concoction: I will often say I have an “inferior motive” for doing something, knowing full well that the correct phrase is “ulterior motive.” But I’m just being honest (and hopefully, humorous).

    Reply

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