Depending on your familiarity with the nuances of the English language, and indeed the way that your brain processes language, you may or may not have noticed three oddities with the above paragraph. The first is the phrase ‘for all intensive purposes’ which is a common mishearing of ‘for all intents and purposes’, the second is the term ‘teaming’ which is usually seen to be a misspelling of ‘teeming’. The final one is the eponymous ‘egg corn’, a mishearing of ‘acorn’ which gives its name to the phenomenon that I write about today.
An eggcorn is a misheard word or phrase which makes sense as a replacement for the original phrase. This definition can be a bit confusing, but hopefully with some explanation of one or two eggcorns it should start to make sense.
Firstly, imagine as I explain these eggcorns that you’ve never seen the original word or phrase written down, and that you’ve only heard them said aloud – that is after all how many of these phrases come to be.
‘Egg corn’ is easy enough to understand and serves as the root of all eggcorns, so we’ll start there. As The Eggcorn Database author Chris Waigl describes: “an acorn is more or less shaped like an egg; and it is a seed, just like grains of corn. So if you don’t know how ‘acorn’ is spelled, ‘egg corn’ actually makes sense.”
It’s also not unheard of for someone to claim that they were curled up in the ‘feeble position’, while most people would write about the ‘fetal position’ with reference to the position a fetus assumes inside the womb. It’s easy to see how the position could be associated with insecurity and weakness, so the adjective ‘feeble’ is a sensible replacement to anyone that isn’t aware of the term’s link with pregnancy. The fact that ‘fetal position’ is so frequently preceded by the words “curled up in” reinforces this notion of weakness, and helps to further explain why this ‘mistake’ is so common.
An extremely common eggcorn that I personally see a lot on forums and Reddit in particular is the phrase “chalk it up to” written as either “chock it up to” or “chuck it up to”. The original phrase is likely an idiom associated with writing a customer’s tab up on a piece of slate in a bar, and essentially means to attribute something (usually some kind of loss or mistake) and connotes a certain level of closure over the matter. Of course, the meaning of the phrase is somewhat convoluted, and that leaves the phrase open to interpretation. “Chucking it up to” could come with the imagery of “chucking” (as in throwing) something away, giving the impression that it’s now out of the speaker’s thoughts. “Chocking it up to” is a little more confusing, perhaps the most direct meaning that could be formed from this spelling relates to a chock (a small block of wood used to stop wheels from rolling). However, it’s probably also related to other phrases that use the word ‘chock’ like “chock-full” and “chock-a-block”. Sometimes the frequency of a word or phrase can convince us that it must be used in places that it probably shouldn’t be.
Perhaps a more amusing example of an eggcorn is the replacement of the word ‘tongs’ with ‘thongs’ in the phrase “going at it hammer and tongs”. The original, meaning to put a lot of effort into something, stems from blacksmithing. However, as the general populace isn’t particularly well-acquainted with blacksmithing, it’s quite likely that tongs are somewhat of a foreign concept, but ‘thongs’ are more well-known. This does raise some questions though, are people referring to the pieces of leather that form the lash of a whip? Or are people thinking of a G-string? And is it sexual either way? If so, why is there a hammer involved?
|I opened up Photoshop for this, and now my search history is kinda strange. Is this even the weirdest image I’ve ever Photoshopped?|
You can browse through The Eggcorn Database at your own leisure, and I encourage you to do so if such things interest you.
One of the best features of The Eggcorn Database is that it reports when and where eggcorns have appeared, so a few laughs can be had while reading the stories of reputable outlets making minor ‘mistakes’ such as Sports Illustrated claiming that Wilkinson has been “cutting off his nose despite his face”.
I write ‘mistakes’ in singular inverted commas because while these words or phrases deviate away from the original, and in some cases are not Standard English, there’s nothing wrong with them. Eggcorns are fantastic in that they feel so fresh and new, with even the term having only been coined in 2003, and they show us how our language can evolve and change. It would be easy to ‘correct’ people when they deviate away from the norm and use eggcorns, but this would lead to our language becoming stale, besides the fact that it’s needless pedantry.
Eggcorns could also help to change our language for the better. “Butt-naked” is often used in place of “buck-naked” (such as in Shaggy’s hit ‘It wasn’t me’) which could be a good thing, even if ‘butt’ is a little too Americanised for my liking, as the Washington State University’s ‘Common Errors in English’ explains:
“The standard expression is “buck naked,” and the contemporary “butt naked” is an error that will get you laughed at in some circles. However, it might be just as well if the new form were to triumph. Originally a “buck” was a dandy, a pretentious, overdressed show-off of a man. Condescendingly applied in the U.S. to Native Americans and black slaves, it quickly acquired negative connotations. To the historically aware speaker, “buck naked” conjures up stereotypical images of naked “savages” or—worse—slaves laboring naked on plantations.”
|All credit to Ochre_Jelly for this one. Please don’t do a Google image search for either ‘butt-naked’ or ‘buck-naked’. However, if you are of the legal age, there are some interesting differences between the results for the two.|
In short, eggcorns are – to me – an amusing part of linguistics that allow us to observe language change in real-time. The internet has no doubt helped to rapidly spread eggcorns around, and makes it much easier to identify and cite them, with one popular technique being to simply Google a suspected eggcorn; the number of search results will provide an estimate of the popularity of the phrase. I hope that this article has been at least a little bit interesting, and that maybe you’ll be able to better understand someone when they make a ‘mistake’ with their words or phrases.