Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I have developed a method, which I call the variational principle—for evaluating whether a phrase constitutes an eggcorn of a valid/established phrase.
By way of example, I would conclude that “in our mitts” must be an eggcorn of “in our midst” because there is no common substitute (or synonym) for “mitts” used for the same purpose; One does not commonly say “in our gloves” or “in our hands”—-but virtually everyone has heard the phrase “in our mitts.”
Similarly, when one says that a person speaks “elegantly”, one must be invoking an eggcorn of “eloquently” because 1. one would probably not have selected “elegantly” if the word “eloquently” did not exist, and 2. one rarely ever describes the way one speaks using a synonym of “elegantly.”
So, if I might take a stab at defining my variational principle…
When one evaluates whether a phrase is an eggcorn of another, long-established phrase, one must check for three things:
1. Is there a closeness in the sounds of the words? (Part of the usual eggcorn test),
2. Would one have used the particular words in the alleged eggcorn phrase if the sound-alike words in the original phrase did not exist?
3. Does one ever use synonyms of the sound-alike words in the alleged eggcorn?
To qualify as an eggcorn, the answers should be:
I think your approach is sound as far as it goes—I suspect all experienced eggcorn-hunters already follow some version of this test.
My problem with your test as formulated is that it doesn’t tackle the issue that’s most important on this website: is a verbal substitution a true eggcorn or just a malapropism?
Let’s use the phrase “foundling fathers” as an example. I posted on this a few months ago, and I put the post on the “Slips, etc.” page because “foundling fathers” is not an eggcorn; it just doesn’t make any sense in the contexts in which it’s used. And the people who use the phrase don’t know what “foundling” means, or aren’t thinking about that as they’re posting. But your test—if I understand it—would call this an eggcorn. It’s not.
You could fix it, I guess, by adding “the substitution must make sense in context” or something like that. But for most people, that’s not going to help a lot. People who think they’ve found an eggcorn will maintain that it kinda sorta makes sense. Non-finders will say it doesn’t. I usually think the non-finders are being more objective. But then again, I’ve also been the emotionally invested “finder” who couldn’t persuade others.
In any case, I’m not convinced that your formula solves the most pressing problem.
Yes, I had assumed that the misquoters thought they were making sense, and I personally didn’t see the problem with that. My concern is moreso whether an eggcorn could make TOO MUCH sense, and I had concluded that it was not a problem as long as the original eggcorn was born of misinterpretation.
Consider the problem of deciding whether “to speak elegantly” is an eggcorn of “to speak eloquently”. I explained elsewhere that I believe it is. But now, isn’t it curious that another writer could juxtapose the eggcorn and the original in the same sentence?...
Tertullian: Did Tertullian use Minucius Felix’ Octavius?... it should be emphasized that he follows Cicero in thinking that to speak elegantly and eloquently on a subject is part of the philosopher’s task. ...
www.tertullian.org/minucius/mf.htm – 37k – Cached – Similar pages
My earlier concern was that this might disqualify “elegant” from being considered an eggcorn of “eloquent,” but I don’t believe it does—as long as a single writer was thrown off-course. In fact, I would not be surprised to see phrases like “on that faithful and fateful day…” or “It was all the rave, and indeed all the rage.” or “we don’t take kindly to those who perpetrate and perpetuate crime.” or “There is a fiend in our midst who will soon be in our mitts” or “Criminals will be prosecuted if not simply persecuted.” Haven’t these all effectively evolved into verbal substitutions or malapropisms after the fact?
Yes, the “Contribute” forum is full of non-eggcorns: either misspellings, typos, or just “replacement of a word of similar sound and or meaning in a familiar phrase” These do belong in the other forum. We clearly need to define our quarry!
To me a proper eggcorn is NOT usually a “one time event”, and ends up being more or less widely used, so that it becomes part of the language. I suspect the #1 reason eggcorns evolve is that the changed word is itself no longer used (or the usage is not seen as making sense), but people liked the familiar phrase (primarily in speaking) so they kept using it, but eventually substituted another word that sounded like the original, but was in the “current vocabulary”. The new phrase itself will either make no literal sense (“pretty please” for “prithy please”), or may seem to make more sense (“icebox lettuce” for “iceberg lettuce”). The actual meaning or use of the original phrase may or may not be retained in the eggcorn.
Eggcorns are primarily oral/aural in structure and history; they are like fossils, giving us information about the past. They are also quite lovable; calling them “tiny little poems” (somewhere on this website) is just perfect!
Oh, and I think eggcorn is one word (not “egg corn”), just like “acorn”. This will also make it much easier to Google “eggcorn”. Dave Pevear, Houston, TX
If an Eggcorn has to become widely used in place of the original (correct) phrase, then “eggcorn” itself is a really lousy name for the phenomenon, because I don’t think that eggcorn is widely used to mean acorn. It’s more like a one-time event. So “eggcorn” is not an Eggcorn.
While it’s a cute name, the Eggcorn monicker invites all kinds of mis-hits for people trying to understand and join in on the concept because it doesn’t fulfill the requirements of the thing that it supposedly describes.
Last edited by kdanieli (2006-08-26 08:45:34)
Part of the problem here is just what we mean by, say, “widely used.” “Eggcorn” may not be really widely used, but it also isn’t a “one-time event.” In the third Language Log article devoted to eggcorns (Jan 7, 2004; http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/language … 00310.html), Mark Liberman gave a count of 62 hits for “eggcorn,” most of which, he said, looked to be authentic. A few of those are now part of the Database entry for acorn>>eggcorn; it’s clear from looking at them that “eggcorn” was being used in quite a number of different registers and types of places. 62 hits means “eggcorn” was still relatively rare, but I think any truly eggcornish reanalysis with that many hits is definitely worth recording.
(Two and a half years after Liberman’s article, we can’t count the authentic hits for “eggcorn” as “acorn” on Google because the linguistic term has caught on so well that it now gets over 69,000 hits.)
Also, the word “eggcorn” was used for this phenomenon in the very first Language Log article that talked about it. (Well, technically, it was coined a few days after the article first appeared.) So the concept was named before people had really gotten to work defining it. Still, I personally think the choice of “eggcorn” was an inspired one. And in any case, the word is now so well established that there’s no going back.