Monday, 24 August 2009

Eggcorns

As a young ‘un, I erroneously believed that one of my elderly relatives suffered from “Auld Timers Disease”; they were indeed old and I believed “Auld Timers” to be the official designation for the affliction more commonly referred to as “doiting”. When I disappointingly discovered the correct term was “Alzheimer’s” I noted with interest that it both sounds like “auld timers” and affects auld timers. Coincidence?

This stuck in my back of my mind and over the years I came across other misspelled or mal-interpreted words and phrases that both sounded like and semi described their meaning; “feeble position” for “foetal position” – fair enough, a baby can be thought of as feeble; “on tray” for “entrée” – sometimes entrée’s are brought on trays. That’s understandable.

I originally considered this phenomenon to be a particularly belletristic malapropism; the unintentional use of an incorrect but similar sounding word that confuses or makes ridiculous the meaning of a phrase. An example of a malaprop in common parlance, made prominent by the kings of post-modern vernacular, Steptoe & Son, is "What are you incinerating?" i.e. “insinuating”.

However, malapropism didn’t fully satisfy the shibboleth designation I envisaged. “Auld Timers Disease”, whilst evidently wrong, adds to the semantic meaning of the correct phrase rather than detracts from it.

Whilst recently perusing an online journal concerning linguistic anomalies penned by Mark Liberman, Trustee Professor of Phonetics at University of Pennsylvania, I stumbled on the elucidation I’d been looking for - Eggcorns!

Liberman discussed the case of a woman who substitutes the phrase “egg corn” for the word “acorn”. Whilst egg corn is obviously an error, it does follow certain logic; an acorn does look like an egg; an acorn is an embryonic tree, an egg an embryonic chicken; corn and acorn both contain seed kernels.

Liberman also noted that there was no established description of this grammatical curiosity, but it was linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003 that first proposed using Eggcorn to name the curio, later stating, "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."

So an Eggcorn is an idiosyncratic replacement of a word or phrase for those that sound similar or identical in the speaker's dialect. The new semantically motivated phrase introduces a consequence distinct from the original, but plausible in the same context. This is divergent to a malapropism, where the word replacement error creates an asinine phrase of dissimilar implication; Eggcorns are errors that exhibit often-unintentional creativity or logic and relate to the original essence. An Eggcorn is a deluxe malapropism, if you will.

Whilst Eggcorn(ism?) is a long-winded concept to explain accurately it is very simple to exemplify; “deep-seeded” instead of “deep-seated”; “deformation of character” instead of “defamation of character”; “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”; “free reign” instead of “free rein”; “lip sing” instead of “lip sync”. Such fun!

And so to my website of the month - www.eggcorns.lascribe.net - a site dedicated to collecting, discussing and rejoicing in the wonderful world of Eggcorns.

Article for Shetland Life magazine - September 2009

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