Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Do people really stumble across eggcorns and then check out their frequency, or do they turn over eggcornish alternatives in their minds and then go looking for them? For example, I saw “dum dum bullets” and wondered if anybody wrote “dumb dumb bullets”. And lo! they did. Which makes me wonder if anybody writes “And low!” (they do, “and low it came to pass” is there) and so on.
Is it cheating? Or does everybody do it?
Yes. We sometimes/often stumble across eggcorns and then check them out. (Yesterday I found It’s of no mind that way. A not particularly eggcornish blend, but I’ve never wanted to be limited to eggcorns only.)
Yes, we sometimes/often turn eggcornish alternatives over in our minds. Sometimes we go looking for them afterwards. (Yesterday, I went looking for Oh well, never matter that way, and, sure enough, found it.)
Yes, low and behold, below and behold, lone behold, long and behold, lo to my surprise, low these many years, lo and behold did I realize, alone behold, …
Is it cheating? That depends on whether there are rules for the sport of eggcorn-hunting, and what they are. I can imagine a purist type that says an eggcorn only counts if it was totally unexpected. I’m not sure who would be the Hoyle for the game. If the point is to find eggcorns, the question is not how something was found, but what was found.
For years before the Internet came along (and still) I had more-or-less conscious lists in my mind of things I would bet people would say, and I would be listening for them. With the Internet it’s a lot easier to check one out when it comes to mind. I see it as a wonderful luxury, for which I am very grateful, not as a cheat.
Last edited by DavidTuggy (2009-11-29 17:05:33)
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
I’ve got a lot to answer for if looking for potential eggcorns I’ve thought of is cheating. Eggcorns I’ve stumbled across in my reading can’t account for more than five percent of all my posts—probably less. For me, some of the most interesting reshapings are those whose logic seems to be reproducible or communicable—I’m most fascinated when different people either come up with the same reshaping independently or adopt immediately as standard one they’ve come across. So I enjoy being able to guess that people probably alter a certain word or phrase in a certain way, and then find evidence supporting my hypothesis.
I wouldn’t call all this cheating, but I do think the habit of “predicting” eggcorns has one drawback for us eggcornistas. I’ve noted in the past that some of the most startling and interesting submissions we get are often from people who post once or twice and are then never heard from again. In many of these cases, the one-time poster notes that s/he read or heard the reshaping somewhere. The best such “found” eggcorns often seem to me fresher and more unusual than “predicted” eggcorns. I think that’s because we eggcorn-hunters are all using certain mental templates that tell us where to go looking for possibilities (“think of words that only appear in fixed idioms, or new words/phrases whose form is still unfamiliar to most speakers, or foreign words that have never been fully assimilated,” etc.). After a while, these templates become familiar to all the regulars on the site, so a submission that breaks out of familiar patterns makes us sit up and take notes.
Your mental template describes to a T (tee, tea) how the inveterate punster’s mind works. I imagine that incorrigible eggcornistas also like puns and word-play and are very familiar with English as it is written down. That description:“think of words that only appear in fixed idioms, or new words/phrases whose form is still unfamiliar to most speakers, or foreign words that have never been fully assimilated”
is exactly what I lazily meant by “cheating”. Because of course it isn’t since, as DavidTuggy rightly says, it’s all about unearthing Eggcorns.Apart from the drawbacks of the well-trodden path you mention, an uneasy feeling I have about dreaming up and then looking, which incidentally is the only way I’ve been operating to date (with extremely limited success I might add), is that someone, somewhere, will have fallen foul (fowl? note to self: check) of virtually any trap imaginable . I’m not for a moment suggesting an exact number but there has to to be an intangible moment at which isolated malentendus reach their critical mass, especially if others take up the reshaping and pass it on. I would imagine that errors made by non-native speakers don’t count: I’m an EFL teacher and I see “Firstable” regularly but I doubt if it’s ever an NS error.
Please, don’t think I’m some come-lately trying to lay down the law. I’m some come-lately trying to curb my new-found enthusiasm for the sport, trying to get some guidelines.
Apart from the drawbacks of the well-trodden path you mention, an uneasy feeling I have about dreaming up and then looking, which incidentally is the only way I’ve been operating to date (with extremely limited success I might add), is that someone, somewhere, will have fallen foul (fowl? note to self: check) of virtually any trap imaginable .
If I understand this right, you’re essentially saying that if two words/phrases sound pretty similar, someone somewhere will have substituted one for the other—and some of those will get passed from speaker to speaker. Sure, I think that’s true—virtually any reshaping that can happen will happen. But it’s not clear to me how that delegitimizes the process by which we look for eggcorns—those reshapings will be out there whether we stumble upon them, go looking for them, or never become aware of their existence.
And of course we try to discern puns and malaprops from eggcorns. (David Tuggy will soon pop up and point out that all eggcorns are malaprops. True in one sense of malaprop and untrue in another.) Unlike puns, eggcorns can’t be intentional reshapings. And unlike (non-eggcornical) malaprops, they must make a certain amount of sense in the context in which they’re used.
You mentioned the possibility of widely diffused malaprops. One piece of near-dogma among eggcornistas is that eggcorns will usually have a wider currency than mere malaprops—but I’m not sure that always holds. The Eggcorn Database gatekeepers have called “a viscous circle” a malaprop rather than an eggcorn; I think they’re wrong, but if they’re right, it’s a very widespread malaprop.
I’m most fascinated when different people either come up with the same reshaping independently or adopt immediately as standard one they’ve come across.
Yes! This goes for any kind of blooper, by the way, not just eggcorns. Though, of course, a random blooper that makes no sense is less likely to be adopted as standard. Nevertheless some of the apparently senseless ones may well be produced independently many, many times.
So I enjoy being able to guess that people probably alter a certain word or phrase in a certain way, and then find evidence supporting my hypothesis.
It’s perfectly right to see guessing and checking as following the scientific method.
I wouldn’t call all this cheating, but I do think the habit of “predicting” eggcorns has one drawback for us eggcornistas. I’ve noted in the past that some of the most startling and interesting submissions we get are often from people who post once or twice and are then never heard from again. In many of these cases, the one-time poster notes that s/he read or heard the reshaping somewhere. The best such “found” eggcorns often seem to me fresher and more unusual than “predicted” eggcorns.
Yes, they do tend to be especially good. And it may be because using templates tends to generate blah results. But another mechanism naturally at work is that first-timers have probably been hearing them for years, but only skimmed the cream of the crop to store in their permanently-accessible memory, so the first-timer results we see have already been filtered.
Another question is whether the use of templates skews our results, making it seem like a greater number are of the types the templates reflect and that other types are correspondingly less prevalent. I’m sure that happens to some degree. I don’t see any point in worrying about it too much.
Another technique, other than using templates oneself, is to recruit a corps of collectors who know you are interested in eggcorns (or whatever). I am very fortunate to have such a cohorps [just checked, and unfortunately did not find that possible blend] backing me, and their finds are indeed better quality than my own. Again, I think the filtering mechanism is at work: I’ll write down any old thing I find, they send me what really tickles their fancy. And it’s not template-generated.
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
Don’t know about the rest of you, but I find a lot of eggcorns by listening to what my mind, especially when it’s tired, wants to say. A little copyeditor in my head almost immediately corrects these wayward expressions to the community norm. But if you can catch yourself catching yourself you will see most of the linguistic foibles of humankind parading across your inner stage. Wittgenstein said in one of his aphorisms “Scheue Dich ja nicht davor, Unsinn zu reden! Nur musst Du auf Deinen Unsinn lauschen.” (“Don’t hesitate to talk nonsense! Only spy on your nonsense.”) That’s from Wittgenstein’s Vermischte Bemerkungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1947 and 1977), p 110.
Last edited by kem (2009-11-29 17:27:30)
One piece of near-dogma among eggcornistas is that eggcorns will usually have a wider currency than mere malaprops—but I’m not sure that always holds.
I see wider currency as a natural result of the more central characteristic of making good sense. We tend not to repeat what is senseless unless there is some special reason to do so; what does make sense we latch onto and use, and in the process it tends to spread from one user to another. Thus wide currency is a reasonably good diagnostic symptom for eggcornhood, but I still think a 1-person eggcorn is not in the least a self-contradictory notion. In fact, a 1-person eggcorn often has some of the same fresh surprisingness you were noting for first-timer reports. You know, the “Who’d ever’ve thunk it, but you know, it makes plenty of sense once you think of it.”
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
Well, I have little interest in 1-person eggcorns if they’re eggcorns. And I agree with the idea of sense as a diagnostic for more or less marking the the eggcorn/malaprop boundary, but I do think it’s possible for things to achieve wide currency even without good sense—I think “viscous circle” is an eggcorn, for example, but I don’t think the huge numbers show that by themselves. Certain idioms don’t make any sense to me (even if I understand their origins), but they became conventional somehow and no one worries too much about their parsability—and an implicit understanding of that aspect of idioms may allow people to accept some pretty weird malaprops as standard.
I agree with the cream-skimming explanation for the excellence of some one-timers’ finds. In rock and roll, people often remark that an artist’s first album is more interesting than what follows, and someone (I’ve heard it attributed to Iggy Pop and many others) supposedly said something like, “Well, I had twenty years to write the first album and 10 months for the second.”
I like Kem’s quotation from WIttgenstein and plan to remember it—aber nur auf Englisch. Headache-inducing clusters like “ja nicht davor” make it easier to not mourn the loss of the Ancestral Tongue in my father’s generation.
Sorry. More egg-sucking lessons for you.
So the well-formed eggcorn is what the writer must genuinely think the word or expression really is, no word-play intended? What’s more this reshaping should make sense to the writer. More sense than the “right way” of doing it, which presumably didn’t occur to the writer, or was discounted by him/her.
An eggcorn isn’t just the wrong homophone being used by a person ascribing the original meaning to the incorrect homophone, however inadvertently funny that may be. If I write “He lives in a muse” because that’s how I think mews is spelled, I’m just illiterate. If I think that “muse houses” are where divinely inspired artists live then it’s an eggcorn. But how do you know that’s what I think? Ideally there would be circumstantial evidence that the writer is not merely illiterate: would some kind of reference to the misunderstood meaning nail it as an eggcorn?
So is an eggcorn an unsuccessful folk etymology? And are folk etymologies over-successful eggcorns?
My fear about always finding what you’re looking for is a bit like the argument that there are an infinite number of worlds. Every single potential eggcorn you can dream up will be out there somewhere sooner or later, especially with the size of the internet increasing constantly:
“Noel Gallagher…..lives in a muse house just off the north end of the marylebone high street” Bingo! Double bingo because Noel is an artist. Of sorts. Though actually this is almost certainly someone who can’t spell.
Pat, how many people were reported to have used eggcorn itself, initially? Did it become more of an eggcorn when the second person used it?
Juan, yes, a folk-etymology is a highly-successful eggcorn (with success here referring only to how widely it gets spread), and conversely an eggcorn can be understood (if not defined) as an incipient or less-than-fully-successful folk-etymology. Also, Juan, by illiterate do you just mean “prone to misspell”? Because for many purposes the term includes the kinds of ignorance coupled with readiness to guess that produces eggcorns.
kem, Wittgenstein nailed it. Wonderful quote—so accurate, as was your observation.
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
David—No, I wouldn’t say the line lies between one and two—and in fact I suspect you have a pretty good guess what I’m going to say—but to be an eggcorn in my book, a reshaping needs to have that degree of reproducibility or “communicablility.” If you go back far enough in forum posts, you’ll find that I held a position similar to yours on this issue in the early days, but I no longer buy the idea that any reshaping that makes sense to someone is an eggcorn—I’m strictly an “outside definer” these days. A reshaping needs to make pretty clear sense pretty immediately to the eggcornista to be an eggcorn; few 1-person reshapings will clear that hurdle. Of course, there’s the problem of defining “eggcornista”—you’d accept “Unitas States of America” as an eggcorn and I wouldn’t. And then there’s the further problem of when in a reshaping’s life-cycle it’s found by someone looking for it. It’s possible these days that someone might stumble onto a 1-person reshaping the day it goes up on the Web; its potential to spread or be reproduced would of course be unknown at that point.
I think Mark Liberman reported something like 62 hits for eggcorn when it was first found. In any case, he does give the number in one of his earliest eggcorn posts; it was in the low dozens—good enough for me, as was his evidence.
My definition of eggcorn is at first blush mushier than yours because yours provides a nice clear numerical boundary (0 vs. 1). But the problem for me is that some of the things you accept as eggcorns as a result of that standard don’t look like what I mean when I say eggcorn. I’m quite willing to give up that ostensible numerical precision if the result is a better fit with my sense of the category in question.
This has been a fun thread, but I’ve got an amazing amount of grading to do, and I’m being bad by posting. So forgive me if I don’t respond to any further name-checks right away; I’ll try to catch up in a couple of days.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2009-11-29 18:51:01)
DavidTuggy- I think my casual use of “illiterate” means more or less “unread”. This here Internet is laying bare the writing abilities of a great many whose control of English would otherwise have remained a secret to a great extent: we now can grasp for ourselves, for example, that a vast number of people who can read and write well-ish use “should of”, perhaps not all the time but certainly often enough when they’re not editing themselves carefully.
I wonder if prolific readers create many eggcorns. So another question: are Eggcornistas rejoicing in the reshapings going on in the minds of obviously intelligent but unread people or rather mocking the ignorant? The first clearly, but is there any danger of the second?
No hurry for answers. I’ve got other things to do. Perhaps not better things to do, though.
Last edited by JuanTwoThree (2009-11-30 02:02:49)
So another question: are Eggcornistas rejoicing in the reshapings going on in the minds of obviously intelligent but unread people or rather mocking the ignorant? The first clearly, but is there any danger of the second?
I’ll let one of my earlier avatars speak for me. This same point was raised some years ago; see the responses by Ken at Comment #2 and the very long response by me at Comment #6: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/forum/viewtopic.php?id=220
I agree wholeheartedly. There’s a deal of imagination on show when a person looks for sense and finds it in his/her creative remoulding of the language.
Massive Edit: creative to us, obviously what is a remoulding to us is what the writer thinks is correct. In fact, it’s not exactly imaginative either. All those people who thought “acorn” was “eggcorn” weren’t being inventive at all. Or rather they were, without meaning to. How confusing.
There’s more to this eggcorn stuff than first meets the eye.
Last edited by JuanTwoThree (2009-12-01 09:16:28)
I agree that an intentional pun is by definition not an eggcorn. But what if an intentional pun is taken at face value by people who are not in on the joke, who then re-use the expression seriously? Has it become an eggcorn? Does it depend on how many people are using it?
But what if an intentional pun is taken at face value by people who are not in on the joke, who then re-use the expression seriously? Has it become an eggcorn?
Yes, in my opinion—and my sense is that most of the regulars on the site would agree. The locus classicus for this is probably “Old Timer’s Disease” as an eggcorn for “Alzheimer’s Disease.” I really, really don’t believe that anyone heard “Alzheimers” and inadvertently reproduced it as “Old Timer’s.” It seems more likely that the reshaping started as a pun and then was adopted by people unaware of the standard form; from there it apparently spread speaker-to-speaker.
So you’re saying that what counts is how people are currently using the expression. That makes sense. Very few of our common expressions have a fully documented history, so we can’t really know whether they had a jocular origin or not. What if the first person to use the term “egg corn” meant it as a joke? I’d hate to think that meant “egg corn” wasn’t an eggcorn!
Last edited by Carol the Dabbler (2009-12-02 00:36:07)
creative to us, obviously what is a remoulding to us is what the writer thinks is correct. In fact, it’s not exactly imaginative either. All those people who thought “acorn” was “eggcorn” weren’t being inventive at all. Or rather they were, without meaning to. How confusing. ¶ There’s more to this eggcorn stuff than first meets the eye.
Moral of the story: even ordinary pedestrian language use is shot through with creativity. Any time someone says the simplest thing and another person understands it, a miracle has occurred.
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
a vast number of people who can read and write well-ish use “should of”, perhaps not all the time but certainly often enough when they’re not editing themselves carefully.
Including an ex-boss of mine who was the FD (CFO) of the company and habitually got this wrong. And I always felt that in this small error he showed himself to many to not really have the attention to detail one might hope for in someone holding that position, and I cringed on his behalf.
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will buy a ridiculous hat – Scott Adams (author of Dilbert)
Build a man a fire and he will be warm for a day; set a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life – Terry Pratchett