Mondegreens and Eggcorns

February 14, 2008 Pop Culture, Writing Comments (0) 157

Today I came across the Wikipedia entry for “eggcorn,” a recently-coined linguistic term that describes one of my ultimate pet peaves. I know I should be forgiving, but to my mind few things make a person seem stupid than the use of a term they have mis-heard or misunderstood, an “eggcorn.”

A few examples:
“For all intensive purposes”
“Once and a while”
“The spurt of the moment”
…and, of course, the eponymous “eggcorn.”

My own pet peaves aside, what was really interesting to me was the list of descriptive names for other linguistic misuses. An eggcorn, you see, is defined as a personal (as opposed to culturally shared) misuse that results when the person misunderstands the term in question through similarity. “Acorn” in many dialects sounds identical to “eggcorn,” and hence the error – which usually only shows up in written form.

Folk etymology results when a whole culture commits to an eggcorn, after which the eggcorn becomes the correct word, at least in that region. For example, in England asparagus is commonly known as “sparrow grass.” “Chaise lounge” came from “chaise longue,” literal French for “long chair.” I’m not sure if “cajun,” which comes from “Acadian,” qualifies – Wikipedia says “cajun” is something called an ‘aphetic variant,’ but I still think it should count.

A malapropism is the substitution of one actual word for another similar-sounding actual word in a common phrase. An example here is the classic “you are my density” from Back to the Future, or George W. Bush’s statement that quotas “vulcanize society.” Malapropisms are often used deliberately for comic effect, but are generally funnier when they are unintentional.

Then we have mondegreens, which is the mishearing of a phrase so that it takes on an entirely new meaning. The examples most people know best are misheard song lyrics: “There’s a bathroom on the right,” “Pick out old Jed from a lineup,” and so on.

So there, a lesson in linguistics from the Hanged Man – so that the next time someone you know makes him or herself look stupid, not only can you point it out, but you can make yourself seem smarter by using the technical term for their stupidity.

On a related note, a quick word about false etymology. This has become rather popular in America these days, thanks to urban legend chain emails. Remember how I said few things make a person seem stupid than a good eggcorn? Here’s one: sending an email that says (or worse, telling someone in person) that “rule of thumb” comes from a law regarding wife beating; that “fuck” or “shit” started as acronyms for anything; that “crap” comes from the inventor of the toilet bowl, or that “tip” and “tips” stand for “to insure [proper service/promptness].”

The only thing that beats out being a moron in person is demonstrating for all of your friends that your education comes in the form of chain e-mail.

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