Eggcorns

Mark Peters wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education on August 9, 2006:

“…So what’s an eggcorn? Originally, the word “eggcorn” was just an amusing misspelling of “acorn.” Linguists — especially those on the Language Log blog — noticed that “eggcorn” made a kind of intuitive sense and was an apt guess if you didn’t know the real spelling.

Linguists Arnold Zwicky, Geoffrey K. Pullum, and Mark Liberman had been collecting similarly intuitive misspellings, and soon those goofs were given the eggcorn label; more than 560 eggcorns can now be found at Chris Waigl’s Eggcorn Database. Anyone can point an eggcorn out, and I’m proud to have spotted “on the spurt of the moment,” “leadway,” “boggled down,” and “put the cat before the horse” in the wild and contributed them to the collection.

All eggcorns make sense on some level. For example, the eggcorn “girdle one’s loins” is far more understandable than the archaic “gird one’s loins.” “Free reign” — an extremely common misspelling — expresses a similar laxness to “free rein,” and there’s a kind of exclamatory kismet between “whoa is me!” and “woe is me!” Another eggcorn, “woeth me!” makes an old-fashioned-sounding word even more so. And since a rabble-rouser may eventually cause some rubble to exist, “rubble-rouser” is a nifty invention.

What makes all of those coinages eggcorns is their logic, poetic or otherwise. As Pullum has said on Language Log: “It would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known. One could say that people should look things up in dictionaries, but what should they look up? If you look up eggcorn, you’ll find it isn’t there. Now what? . . . You’re an intelligent native speaker; you have a right to just trust your ears and your brain sometimes. And sometimes, in consequence, an eggcorn is born.”

Of course, no matter how amusing eggcorns may be, they are still mistakes. Students shouldn’t be encouraged to create eggcorns, but the glee with which professional and amateur linguists hunt for eggcorns provides a powerful model that teachers can emulate and encourage.

Just as members of Language Log and of the American Dialect Society’s online discussion group never stop finding, discussing, and debating eggcorns, eggcorn-hunting in the college classroom could lend itself to one-time exercises as well as long-range activities, particularly in text-focused subjects such as composition and literature…”

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