An eggcorn is a particular kind of language error. Once described as a “slip of the ear,” an eggcorn is the written version of a plausible mishearing of a usual phrase or word. The new phrase introduces a meaning that is different from the original, but plausible in the same context, such as “old-timers’ disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease.”
And, for a change, we know exactly where the term ‘eggcorn’ came from. It was coined by professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum in September 2003 in response to an article by Mark Liberman on the website Language Log, a blog for linguists. Liberman discussed the case of a woman who substitutes the phrase egg corn for the word acorn, and argued that the precise phenomenon lacked a name. Pullum suggested using “eggcorn” itself as a label.
That seems a sensible name. After all, acorns are shaped somewhat like eggs. And acorns are the seeds of trees just as eggs are the seeds of chickens, and of humans as well—seeds that spring into new life.
Eggcorns are incorrect, but may be more satisfying or poetic than the correct word or expression. If you didn’t know how to spell the word “acorn,” then “eggcorn” may seem like a logical alternative. In another example, “For all intents and purposes” is a common idiom. It sometimes gets misheard as “for all intensive purposes,” and sometimes appears that way in print.
Sometimes the eggcorn makes better sense than the original word or phrase. Here are some examples:
— mixmatches instead of mismatches
— jar-droppingly good rather than jaw-droppingly
— ex-patriot instead of expatriate
— mating name instead of maiden name
— porkulent instead of corpulent
— butt naked for buck naked
— hare’s breath for hair’s breadth
— on tenderhooks instead of on tenterhooks
— road to hoe instead of row to hoe
— real trooper instead of real trouper
The Oxford English Dictionary added ‘eggcorn’ to their list of words in 2010. Their editors described it in a note as a cousin of the mondegreen, meaning a misheard lyric. The mondegreen came from someone who heard the last line from the Scottish folk song “The Bonny Earl O’Morray” as, They have slain Earl O’Morray/and Lady Mondegreen instead of, They have slain Earl O’Morray/and laid him on the green.
An eggcorn also differs from a malapropism, the latter being a substitution that creates a nonsensical phrase. Classical malapropisms generally derive their comic effect from the fault of the user, while eggcorns are substitutions that exhibit creativity or logic. The phenomenon is similar to the form of wordplay known as the pun, too, except that puns are intended, whereas eggcorns are accidental.
These different forms represent something that we all do with language, whether intentionally or not; taking forms and relating them to things we already know. It’s fun seeing what happens with language, but doing so keeps reminding me to watch what I say!