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From me tall tails can growThe Language Log, a blog maintained at the University of Pennsylvania by three linguists, some time ago [2004] introduced what seems to be a new word, eggcorn. It has been spreading across the web like oil on water ever since. I have no alternative but to comment on it or get out of the water.

Eggcorn is reportedly someone’s pronunciation of acorn, what is otherwise called in journalese a mondegreen or, in linguistic terminology, a reanalysis.

Other examples in the Eggcorn Database include malapropisms like a mute point for “a moot point”, reanalyses (mondegreens) like another words for “in other words”, and folk etymologies like catnap for “catchnap”. So what’s the big deal?

Well, Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania Linguistics Department refutes claims that eggcorns are any of the common types of speech errors they seem to be like. He says that an eggcorn is not any of these for the following reasons.

1. It’s not a folk etymology (e.g. craw[l]fish for “crayfish”), because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community.

Who said folk etymologies had to be accepted by the entire speech community? Do malapropisms and misanalyses (mondegreens) have to be used by the entire speech community, too, in order to be what they are? So, then, why should folk etymologies? Eggcorn is a perfect folk etymology.

2. It’s not a malapropism (e.g. alligator for “allegation”), because egg corn and acorn are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like allegory for alligator, oracular for vernacular and fortuitous for fortunate are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content).

Maybe on Pluto now that it is not a planet but among the Earth-bound English-speaking world neither eggcorn and acorn nor most of the other “eggcorn” pairs in the Database are pronounced identically. If they are pronounced identically, how do we known that they are discrete?  Are eggcorns restricted to the written language, the written correlates of the three types of speech errors listed here?

3. It’s not a mondegreen because the misconstrual is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.

What journalists call a “mondegreen” is what real linguists call a reanalysis, discussed thoroughly in the Linguist List back in 1992 (issues 001546, 001556, 001571, 001579, 001590, 001595, 001596, 001607, 001613, 001614, 001615).  Reanlysis is not limited to songs or poems; this is a flagrant misconception made and prolonged by journalists.

OK, let’s play around with it and have some fun. Any linguist worth their salt knows that you don’t have to have clear definitions of words to use and enjoy them. Before I add this word to my vocabulary, though, I want to see that eggcorns is not another third word ending on -gry, an attempt at something new and cute that doesn’t make it. In the meantime, I hope this blog and the website behind it will do a better job at putting linguistic knowledge to use in clarifying the thrills and mysteries of language to the world at large.

3 Responses to “Eggcorns”

  1. Katybr Says:

    play around with it how? or are we to think up other instances where people use words wrong. Like my friend who never fails to say for all intensive purposes, then there is the lest and least confusion, Any more? Yeah my friend also thought baalzebub was beezlebub, and the last book in the Old testament? Oh that was the Italian prophet Ma LOO’ chee.


  2. Ed Says:

    I’m not sure why there is such confusion between an eggcorn and a mondegreen out there, because to me at least the difference is clear.

    A mondegreen is a mishearing or misanalysis in which the erroneous word or phrase sounds similar to the original but with a totally changed meaning. For example “They have slain the Earl of Murray, and layd him on the green” became “They have slain the Earl of Murray, and Lady Mondegreen”, giving its name to the phenomenon. “Lady Mondegreen” and “Layd him on the green” only sound similar, but there is no logical link between them.

    An eggcorn, by contrast, sounds similar AND preserves something of the original meaning. For example, the woman who used the term “eggcorn” for “acorn” presumably did so because she believed they were named for their egg-like shape. Another one would be “preying mantis” instead of “praying mantis”, as mantids are famously predatory.

    If she had called acorns “haycorns” that would not have been an eggcorn, because there is no logical link between the erroneous word and the object.

  3. rbeard Says:

    “Eggcorn” and words like it represent folk etymology (, a long-standing concept in linguistics. It is just like “crayfish” becoming “craw[l]fish”, replacing an unrecognized part of a word with one that is recognizable. I agree that this is different from mondegreens (reanalyses) but my point is simply that we don’t need a new names for either.

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