Eggcorns have become a hot topic among collectors of language trivia. Although they have existed throughout the history of language, they only recently acquired a name, coined by Geoff Pullum of the popular linguistics blog Language Log. As you may have guessed, "eggcorn" is an example of an eggcorn: a term (in this case acorn) misinterpreted by the hearer in a way that has its own logic.
Eggcorns are related to "folk etymology," the process through which a term whose elements are opaque to speakers of a language gets reinterpreted to make more sense, and changes pronunciation or spelling in a way that reveals the new interpretation. For example, the term catty-cornered or kitty-cornered originated as cater-cornered Ė whose first element means "four" (the French quatre). As the word cater fell out of general use, the meaning of cater-cornered was no longer clear, leaving it ripe for reinterpretation. Currently each version exists in some varieties of English, but cater appears to be losing ground in the United States.
You may feel that under scrutiny, catty-cornered doesn't make much sense either, but at least the average English speaker recognizes both constituents of the term. True folk etymology is a misinterpretation held by most speakers of a language community. The eggcorn is a misinterpretation held by only one speaker, which makes it amusing for other speakers to collect.
Here are some eggcorns actually recorded in the Halls of Language Weaver. None of them existed in the English of our locale 50 years ago, but some of them have more than one adherent among today's speakers and thus could be on the way to becoming folk etymologies.
- Flush out the plan this week and report it to us at the next meeting.
- Donít do it halfhazardly; let's put some thought into it.
- Explain to them that it's of upmost importance, and see how soon they can get back to us with an answer.
- Just use the trite and true approach this time; we don't have time to invent anything new.
- He's chomping at the bit waiting for his data to come out.
One Weaver who is an avid collector reports having heard the following eggcorns in conversations with neighbors and relatives.
- Since he got oldtimer's disease, she has to take care of him full time.
- Your shoes will be safe; I'm watching them like hawks. [An example where a whole phrase has been reinterpreted.]
- She moved out to Yorba Limbo. [The official name of the town is Yorba Linda.]
The previous example illustrates the wonderful potential of foreign terms to become eggcorns. Since we haven't heard any bilingual examples yet in the Halls of Language Weaver, let's cite one from the Language Log that has been making the rounds in the blogosphere.
- It took some big kahunas to actually go through with it. [Using kahuna, a Hawaiian word that migrated into English via the surfing culture, as a reinterpretation of the border-Spanish "cojones."]
Please send us your favorite eggcorns. If they can be published in a family newsletter, we'll include them in a follow-up article.