Saturday, September 23, 2017

Still Life with Robin: Happy Eggcorn Day!

Photo by Juan Diaz Hidalgo
via Wikimedia Commons
by Peggy Robin

Happy Eggcorn Day! What’s that? - you say. It’s the perfect question for a holiday that honors the universal propensity to mix up words. An eggcorn is something like a malapropism, but it’s more deeply embedded in the user’s language learning brain. An eggcorn is usually a childhood mistake in hearing, You grow up with it and use it freely, until one day you discover, to your chagrin, that you’ve been misspeaking a word or phrase that everyone else uses in another way. The word “eggcorn” itself is the prime example. The story is that a woman grew up hearing people talks about eggcorns – you know, those nuts that fall from oak trees. Yes, she’d read about “acorns” in books, but for some reason, she assumed that was something different. Then, one strange day, in an amazing epiphany, she connected the two and realized they were the same word. That’s an eggcorn!

Now you may be wondering why September 23 is named Eggcorn Day. Because it’s the day that linguistics professor Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania first described this verbal phenomenon in the blog Language Log (23 September 2003) – see

Some common eggcorns are:

For all intensive purposes (for all intents and purposes)
Bread-and-breakfast (for bed-and-breakfast)
A jar-dropping event (for jaw-dropping)
It never seizes to amaze (for never ceases to amaze)
An old wise tale (for old wives’ tale)
Their efforts came to knot (came to naught)

In case you were thinking at this point, aren't these things simply malapropisms? -- here’s the distinction: a malapropism is a mistake caused by the speaker’s inattention or indifference to meaning. It’s funny, because the speaker often doesn't realize the meaning of the substituted word doesn't fit. Example: “I want to improve my speaking voice, so I’m taking lessons in electrocution.” Or, “I deny the allegation, and I deny the alligator!” Malapropisms are often the inventionof a satirical playwright, mocking the vocabulary of a character created to sound ridiculous. Indeed, the word “malaprop” comes from a character in a play, The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – a Mrs. Malaprop, who gleefully and unwittingly mangled words and phrases (“…illiterate him from your memory” instead of “obliterate him” – or “Oh, it gives me hydrostatics to such a degree” for “hysterics” – see The legendary Hollywood film producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was so famous for his peculiar misuse of words and phrases that his malapropisms became known as “Goldwynisms” (see – and he came to relish his own reputation for the amusing mixups so much that he actually hired a press agent to invent funny malapropisms to be attributed to him.

One could argue (and I do!) that an eggcorn is closer in spirit to a mondegreen, which is a simple confusion of sounds. Mondegreens, however, are limited to mis-heard song lyrics. The term's origin is from the old Scottish folk song:

“Oh, they hae slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green!” Which tended to be mis-heard as: “They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen” – resulting in two sorry corpses, instead of one.

For more about mondegreens, see Mondegreens, because they involve familiar songs with slurred or unintelligible lyrics that we all tend to want to make sense of, may be the funniest type of word transposition -- even funnier than either eggcorns or malaproprisms. So why don’t they have their own holiday? They do! Mondegreen Day is March 25, chosen because it is the birthday of the King of the Mondegreens, Sir Elton John. A quick sampling follows – but you will have to go and look up the real lyrics yourself.

“She’s got electric boobs, a mower too, you know I read it in a magazine” (from “Benny and the Jets”)
“Hold me closer, Tony Danza” (from “Tiny Dancer”)
“You can’t stand bein’ a penpal, I’m going out to laugh now” (from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”)
“I’m not a man, they think I am a ho” (“Rocket Man”)
“He had a no-go Chevy and a case of B.O.” (from “Crocodile Rock”)

Mondegreen Day is just about six months from now, so mark your calendars! And in the meantime, enjoy the eggcorns of fall!

Still  Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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