Dear Language Nerd,
What’s the word for when you mishear something and make up a new word for it? Acorn something?
You’re looking for eggcorn, which is itself an eggcorn of “acorn.”* An eggcorn is a reinterpretation of a word or phrase. Something with an obscure meaning is changed to something in plain(er) English. “Asparagus” is a funny word, with no obvious ties to other English words; the eggcorn “sparrowgrass” looks more parsable. Often the original comes from a foreign language, or has archaic words or bits of words, or has words we still use but put together in an old-fashioned way.
When the original pattern of a word or phrase stops making sense, we fit a new pattern to what we hear. This new pattern wasn’t there before (asparagus doesn’t have anything to do, historically, with sparrows or with grass), but that doesn’t stop us from finding it. It’s the aural equivalent of seeing the Virgin Mary on toast.
Take “for all intents and purposes.” This is an antiquated phrase twice over. First, the form is what’s called a legal doublet, where you have two words that mean the same thing in order to make sure everyone understands (like “will and testament” or “cease and desist” or “law and order” [bong bong]). Which is lovely for the lawyers, but in everyday conversation we mostly don’t double up our nouns – “I’ll have the chicken and poultry salad, with a coke and soda to drink.” Second, “intent” rarely goes around as a naked noun outside of this one phrase; it’s usually dressed up as “intention.” So “for all intents and purposes” is a great candidate for eggcorning, and it often is, into “for all intensive purposes.”
Here’s the key: the eggcorn is as plausible as or more plausible than the original. “For all intensive purposes” has logic behind it – “maybe if we were just chitchatting we could spitball about flippant purposes, but no, this is serious and we’re focusing on intensive purposes.” Eggcorns are not deliberate or conscious, but they do make sense, and “intensive purposes” makes just as much sense as “intents and purposes.”
This is what distinguishes the eggcorn from the malapropism. A malapropism also involves substituting one word or phrase for a similar-sounding word or phrase, but the malapropism has no logic to it. They’re usually either one-off mistakes or jokes, like “Hey! I resemble that remark!” (for “I resent”). The most famous eggcorns have caught on with the general public, and no one knows their originators; the most famous malapropisms are quips by fictional characters. Two fictional characters, mainly. The tropenamer Mrs. Malaprop, of The Rivals, and Constable Dogberry, of Much Ado About Nothing, which Shakespeare penned in 1598 and then the whole world had to wait 400 years for Nathan Fillion to finally take the role.
A couple more popular eggcorns, just for kicks: “butt naked” for “buck naked,” and “bold-faced lie” for “bald-faced lie.” And again, the logic is sound. A bald-faced lie has no cover, a bold-faced one is written in an eye-catching font; both are good visual metaphors for a lie that is ridiculously brazen. And what’s the better image, the old racist concept of naked, primitive savages? Or hilarious naked butts? Easy choice.
And yet, I can feel the rage rising from the grammar curmudgeon crowd. What’s wrong with kids these days? Can’t they read a book? Standards are declining! It’s probably technology’s fault.
As usual, my answer is: nahhhh. Eggcorns have been a part of English for as long as English has been changing – that is, always. Eggcorns that occurred long enough ago that no one now questions them are called folk etymologies.** And we’ve got plenty.
Ever hear of a “compeer”? It’s a 15th-century word for “rival” or “equal.” But when it lost traction, “without compeer” became “without compare.” “Pickaxe” was earlier “picas,” but changed because of a (fair enough) association with axes. And then there’s “curry favor,” which is still weird if you think about it. But not as weird as “curry favel.” This means “brushing down (with a curry comb) a chestnut horse.” Yeah, really. We took this from Medieval French, where a light-colored horse was a symbol of deceit. Here’s the moral: any phrase that needs both an etymology dictionary and a course in French to figure out could stand a little eggcorning.
The greatest example of the eggcorn/folk etymology process is, in fact, “eggcorn.” Not just because it’s the example that named the phenomenon, but also because, in an amazing stroke of luck, “acorn” has already danced this dance.
- In Old English, æcern means “nut” (of lots of trees, not just oaks).
- The meaning of æcern narrows to only the nuts from oak trees. The Old English word for “oak” is ac.
- Æcern is eggcorned into acorn by association with ac and corn (which still has a second sense of “kernel” or “seed”).
- Acorn spreads, supplants æcern, and fossilizes into folk etymology. No one remembers or cares about æcern.
- Ac changes into oak over time. The vowels of oak and acorn go in such different directions that there no longer seems to be a connection between them.
- Probably based on its shape, acorn is eggcorned into eggcorn.
- Much rejoicing.
The Language Nerd
P.S. To finish out the set, mondegreens are the same idea as eggcorns, but in songs or verse. It’s not usually foreign phrases that lead to mondegreens, but instead the less-common vocabulary, the way words are run together to fit the meter, and on occasion the difficulty of making out the lyrics over the wailing guitars. The most famous mondegreens include Credence Clearwater Revival’s big hit “Bathroom on the Right” and the Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band cover of “Blinded by the Light,” with its lyrics about giving a cleansing tool as a Christmas present. But my favorite has to be the less well-known mondegreen of Fatboy Slim’s soulful tune: “Crazy (Like a Shoe).”
*Autological terminology, aww yiss.
**Originally, the idea was that eggcorn would be the term for a reinterpretation made by a single person, leaving folk etymology for things used in a community, past or present. But eggcorns are often independently invented by many people, and they spread fast. Usage today seems to have settled along the lines of “still controversial/still independently invened” vs “so old that no one remembers there was ever another option/taught and learned.” But in the long run, my money’s on eggcorn taking over for folk etymology entirely.
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Links to Etymonline (for folk etymologies) and the Eggcorn Database (for eggcorns) have been provided as went along. I first saw mention that “acorn” had been double-eggcorned in a comment on Language Log, though I can no longer find the blasted thing. Language Log is also where the term “eggcorn” originated. The very first mention is available here, with Mark Lieberman quoting Geoffrey Pullum as the christener. Because Geoffrey Pullum is everywhere.