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Q From Jonathan McColl, Scotland; related queries came from Betsy Cramer, Andrew Billington and Edie Bonferraro: I think that you throw in these things to see if we are paying attention and to ensure correspondence for the next week’s World Wide Words issue. Why did you describe changes due to errors as eggcorns?

A As well as last week’s piece on the evolving shift from home in on to hone in on that provoked this question, eggcorns have been mentioned before in passing: in December 2004, on hearing about a shift of centrifugal towards centrifical, and near the end of 2006 when discussing the appearance of flying collars for flying colours and much adieu for much ado. But I’ve not before talked about them in any detail, so now seems a good time.

The term was invented by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum in September 2003 in an online forum called The Language Log. Another linguist, Mark Liberman, had mentioned a woman who wrote eggcorn instead of acorn, since in her American regional speech the first vowels are the same; she also probably says beg like the first syllable of bagel. Professor Pullum suggested this example should lend its name to the whole class of such misanalyses. Their essential quality is the change of a word into another which is either said the same or is closely similar and which seems to make at least as good sense in context as the original. It has now become quite well established, not least because journalists find it great fun to explain such an odd term and give examples.

There are hundreds of eggcorns. Jeanette Winterson wrote in the Times in 2006 about a repairman who told her that her washing machine had given up the goat (and who had invented a wondrous story to explain it about farmers passing on their livestock to their heirs when they died). People give free reign to their emotions or await some event with baited breath, tell others to tow the line or that they’re acting like a bowl in a china shop, or assert that they’re not going to mix their words. They might claim something is fullproof or that their chickens are coming home to roast, complain that an item cost a nominal egg instead of an arm and a leg, or oddly exhort people to bare with me. In March 2007, the Economist said that an eruption of mud in Indonesia was of scolding slurry. People sometimes describe scary experiences as being nerve-wrecking rather than nerve-wracking. (In a recording for a BBC programme recently on eggcorns I pointed out that the wrecking form appears 17 times on the BBC’s Web site; somehow this didn’t make it to the final broadcast.) People often amend damp squib to damp squid, they being more familiar with the creature (which can reasonably be described as wettish) than with firework displays. There are so many eggcorns that Chris Waigl has a Web site devoted to them, The Eggcorn Database, verily an eggcornucopia.

Several subscribers roundly dismissed such shifts as errors. They are indeed just that, at least to start with, when they are made by only one or two people. When they become common, as hone in on is becoming in the US, one has to start treating them as signals of a possible impending shift in acceptability. A good case, especially in the USA and Australia, is chaise lounge, (which has reached some dictionaries), instead of chaise longue. There are hundreds of words and expressions in the language today that began similarly as mistakes; if we were to continue to insist on their being errors, the language would be to that extent impoverished. The formal name for such permanent changes that occur through ignorance is folk etymology (a confusing term because it can also refer to stories that people invent to explain the origins of words). Acorn itself is a good example of a mistake becoming established; in Old English it was akran, meaning a fruit of the forest, but by an eggcornish process it was later taken to refer to both oak and corn (as a seed) and took on its modern form.

For the sake of completeness, it may be worth saying what eggcorns are not. They are not (yet) folk etymologies, because — at the stage at which they’re being recorded — they are errors made by individuals, not by an entire speech community. They are also not malapropisms, although they do share some characteristics with them, because in a true malapropism the correct word is replaced by one with no more than a glancing similarity (allegory for alligator or oracular for vernacular). They are not mishearings of song lyrics so can’t be called mondegreens. Another type of error outside the ambit of eggcorns has been given the cumbersome name of morphological reanalysis, with examples like doctorial, mischievious and mixature, and the notorious shift of nuclear towards nucular in the US. These evolve because native speakers reanalyse words and change elements in them to fit a pattern they are more familiar with — doctoral changes to doctorial because the -ial ending is more common than -al. (Some would put centrifical in this class, because it has been influenced by the common ending -ical, which is better known than the correct -(f)ugal.)

Linguists are interested in eggcorns because they illustrate how speakers think about the words they are producing. For the rest of us, we can either ridicule them as errors and complain about how the language is going to the dogs, or we can view them in an inquiring spirit as one aspect of the unending evolution of the English language. For me, many eggcorns provoke thought-provoking or surreal imagery that takes them halfway to poetry. Can you encounter damp squid, scolding slurry, bowl in a china shop or flying collars and not be struck by the exotic mental pictures they evoke?

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Page created 21 Apr 2007