Eggcorns and Neologisms and Mondegreens

Eggcorns and neologisms. I think I have heard the term eggcorn before, but its meaning slipped away over time. I know neologism quite well; in fact, it’s one of my favorite words. The terms came to my attention again recently. Eggcorn is likely to slip away again, but at least I’ll be able to find it again here. If I remember to look. An eggcorn is “a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase.” Some people poetically call them a slip of he ear.

Here are some examples of eggcorns, the first word or phrase is the mistake in every case:

  • doggy-dog-world versus dog-eat-dog world
  • for all intensive purposes versus for all intents and purposes
  • happy as a clown versus happy as a clam
  • ex-patriot versus expatriate
  • passes mustard versus passes muster
  • illicit a response versus elicit a response
  • expresso versus espresso
  • chomping at the bit versus champing at the bit
  • another think coming versus another thing coming

Wait, that last one…is the original, correct, phrase really another think coming?And the one before that, is it really supposed to be champing at the bit? If you were to believe an article in Time Magazine from May 2015, that’s correct.

Regardless of whether you believe which word or phrase is “correct,” you might wonder whether, indeed, eggcorns are simply malapropisms by another name. The difference, according to some online source I’ve forgotten, is that malapropisms consist of substitutions that form nonsense phrases. I’d argue that for all intensive purposes meets that definition of malapropism; but I don’t know with whom I’m arguing, so I’ll let it pass.

What’s the difference, though, between an eggcorn and a neologism? I’d say it depends… The word eggcorn, now accepted as a legitimate word, was adopted in 2003 by a group of linguists who (according to Time Magazine) discussed someone’s mistaken use of the word to identify what the rest of us would call an acorn. In my book, eggcorn was at the time a neologism. Speaking of neologisms, my favorite (the one I think I coined but could be wrong) is insinuendo, a portmanteau combining insinuate and innuendo. But I think some people, including some linguists, would say the word is an eggcorn. Inasmuch as I control my own language, thank you very much, I don’t really care what they say. I’ll call it a neologism until it comes into common usage, as it should. Before I leave the topic, let me use that favorite word in a sentence: “His comments about Beth’s disheveled dress, when she emerged from the library with Maxwell, were engorged with insinuendo.”

I could go on. I could discuss, at length, the term mondegreen and the strange appeal it has over me. A mondegreen, by the way, is “a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning.” Sometimes used to describe the mishearing/misinterpretation of lyrics to music, the word is best understood by way of example. My favorite example of a mondegreen is the mishearing of a Jimi Hendrix song that includes the words: “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.” The alternative, the mondegreen, is “excuse me, while I kiss this guy.” A reverse mondegreen, one with which most English speaker are familiar is:

“Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey.
A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?”

The “original,” from which the lyrics were extracted, is:

Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy
A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?”

According to a piece on Wikipedia, The Twelve Days of Christmas originally included “four colly birds” (“colly” meaning “black”); over time (around the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century), “colly” was replaced by “calling.”

Language is fascinating. Life is fascinating. Make the most of it while you have it.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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