Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
A week ago, at the 11th International Cognitive Linguistics Conference in Xi’an, China, I gave a presentation entitled ‘Towards a definition for the category “Eggcorn”’, by Pat Schweiterman and yours truly. (But truly, if there’s anything there that you don’t like, it’s pretty surely my doing, not Pat’s.)
Anyhow, the power-point (.pptx) is available here (it’s the second one listed on the page). They only gave 20 minutes for the presentation, so it’s short; the presentation was very well-attended (several of my friends said they couldn’t even get in the room, and it was crowded in there for sure) and people responded positively, including some whose good opinion I highly value. Discussion was brisk and you could tell people were interested in the topic.
You’ll notice that a couple of the examples I gave popped up only in the last week or two (“scissorian section” and “pawnsie scheme”).
Be interested in any comments. I’d hoped to have this notice up sooner, but was having problems with ftp and my website.
Last edited by DavidTuggy (2011-07-22 18:06:10)
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
Encouraging to hear that we are getting some attention (even if we have to be our own publicists!). A well-crafted presentation.
Some random thoughts…
(1) I like the way you divide up field, trying to organize the various language tropes. In a longer presentation it might be useful to bring blends and portmanteux into the picture.
(2) The issue of the idiomatic embedding of eggcorns was probably another casualty of the short time you had. Understandable—it is a minefield.
(3) I continue to be confused about folk etymologies. The older term is at once wider and narrow than what we mean by “eggcorn.”
(4) At the end you say “such that the restructured word or phrase makes good sense in most contexts of usage.” Should the end of this phrase be changed to “many contexts of usage” or “some contexts” or “certain contexts?” “Most” feels a little strong to me, especially given the multiple meanings of words and the number of etymologically distinct words with identical spellings.
Last edited by kem (2011-07-22 22:46:45)
No, I hadn’t noticed the Wikipedia article. Better go look at it.
Issues (2) and (4) actually go together. If you take the eggcorn to be constituted by only the morpheme(s) that change(s), then, yes, “most contexts” will be too strong. If, however, the eggcorn is constituted by the changing part plus its necessary context (the idiomatic context in which it is embedded), then I think it works. E.g. due < do will probably not work in “most” contexts, but make due < make do will. But, as you say, plenty of complexity is glossed over pretty fast there.
*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .
Thanks, David, an interesting and entertaining presentation. It was nice to see some of the classics again; I was struck once again with the perfection of a nominal egg.
I wondered about the idea that eggcorns can be used without comment from the hearers. It seems to me that this was true before the age of the WWW. Now they stick out like sore thumbs, and that explains the existence of the Eggcorn Forum. Now errors and evolution of the language will be different. Now teh is possible.
I can’t really say much about your schema for describing eggcorn genesis, beyond thinking it’s pretty accurate. But I do have a question that has been at the back of my mind from the beginning. Are eggcorns representative of the way languages evolve, or are they just quirky misunderstandings? I mean, can anything nontrivial be learned from eggcorns? Does anyone know how words change in meaning? Perhaps they do it in a thousand ways and it’s difficult to generalize. Or maybe languages evolve by losing obsolete words and gaining newly relevant ones. I suppose this stuff is known to lexicographers, or better, that lexicographers devote their lives to this question. Still, I do wonder.
Last edited by burred (2011-07-24 21:12:36)
Are eggcorns representative of the way languages evolve, or are they just quirky misunderstandings? I mean, can anything nontrivial be learned from eggcorns?
You really swing for the fence when you ask questions, David. It would be fun to be one of your students.
My own response – short form – would be that eggcorn behavior is at the heart of language. Lacking, however, a unified field theory that could pull together the syntactic, semantic, historical, and neurological components of language, we are not in a position to divine the role that eggcorns play the grand scheme of things (How’s that for waffling?).
The whiff of triviality that you detect is partly our own fault. On this forum we’ve found it convenient to treat eggcorns as a subspecies of malapropisms. Eggcorns, we say, are malapropisms that make an odd kind of sense by virtue of the audial and semantic space they share with their acorns. But if they make some sense, however odd, they’re not really malaprops, are they? Malaprops are, by definition, slips that signal their existence by breaking sense.
To avoid this paradox, we might start out by positioning eggcorns, not as rescued malaprops, but as special kinds of metaphor – metaphors that have walked on the malapropic wild side. By doing this we would underline the fact that eggcorns, like metaphors, are fundamental tropes for building language.
Metaphors, most agree, are first round draft players in the game of language. Some even posit that metaphors and their underlying neural machinery are the fons et origo of language. (See, for example, on metaphors, synesthetic and otherwise, as the source of language.)
Ramalamachandran’s essay raises a number of interesting points, some of which touch on topics that have come up before on this site. First off, he appears to be building a case for a tactile theory of language: words are things, whose physical form resonates and can be felt at some level in the brain. He even proposes a test for this idea, in the form of a “kiki-booba” synesthesia, which you have to admit is an embarassing name for a hypothesis. Would the same associations occur in all languages? I don’t know, but I suppose this could be tested.
The idea that metaphors are a psychological manifestation of a physical relation, related to the phenomenon of synesthesia, is interesting,
blue, E major, sticky and thought-provoking. I’m not entirely convinced by it. However, there is the evidence of Captain Beefheart, who said that the harmonica playing of Little Walter was like an olive dipped in blue honey.
The whiff of triviality that you detect is partly our own fault. On this forum we’ve found it convenient to treat eggcorns as a subspecies of malapropisms. Eggcorns, we say, are malapropisms that make an odd kind of sense by virtue of the audial and semantic space they share with their acorns. But if they make some sense, however odd, they’re not really malaprops, are they?
The problem of defining eggcorns as malapropisms has been bothering me, too. In the last month and a half or so, I’ve read Arnold Zwicky’s paper on classical malapropisms, the Fay/Cutler article that inspired it, and a few other articles that cited one or the other of those two. And I’ve only become a little more confused about Zwicky’s insistence that eggcorns are a type of classical malapropism. I thought my own sense that there was something paradoxical in that definition of eggcorn was probably just based on not knowing the linguistic definitions of “malapropism.” But “malaprop(ism)” tends to be pretty vaguely defined even in those (admittedly few) linguistics discussions I’ve read that were addressing it as a main topic. If you define “malapropism” as the use of the wrong word E for a standard target word T—as Zwicky seems to— then eggcorns are malapropisms. But if you define malapropisms as words that don’t make sense in context—as plenty of people, including linguists seem to—then eggcorns are borderline cases as malapropisms. And the latter case seems to me closer to a “classical sense” of malapropism as embodied by, say, Mrs. Malaprop. Both those categories are useful, and our technical vocabulary for substitutions is small, so they get lumped together, maybe even by the experts.
I think there are ways out of this. Eggcorns tend to involve the susbtitution of a word whose standard definition is known to the speaker (like “egg” in “acorn”) while what I myself would call “classical malapropisms” involve the substitution of a word whose standard definition appears to be unknown to the speaker (like “allegory” for “alligator”). I think that distinction—and the “making sense” criterion—are the most useful ones in drawing a line between malapropisms and eggcorns. So what I’m wondering right now is this: Are there things that 1) are regularly called “malapropism” by people who seem to know how the word is used in discussions of semantics, that 2) DO make some sense in their contexts, and (3) that wouldn’t be called “eggcorns” by people like us? If the answer’s yes, then it might be hard to separate out eggcorns and malapropisms neatly. But if there isn’t anything out there that satisfies all three of those conditions, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t define malapropisms and eggcorns as being separate terms: “Eggcorns are words or phrases that are substituted in a non-standard way for a standard target word or phrase that is quite similar in sound; the substitution makes some sense in context to people who know the target word/phrase, and the speakers seem to know the standard meaning of the substituted word/phrase.” This just doesn’t sound like the typical definition of a malapropism to me. I think nothing Mrs. Malaprop said would fit—so I’d say that if you’re going to call eggcorns “malapropisms,” you shouldn’t at any rate call them a type of “classical malapropism.” They just don’t fit well with that description.
That said, I’m not at all sure that Zwicky’s definition of eggcorns has had all that much influence on how we treat eggcorns here on the forum. In fact, Kem’s claim that we treat eggcorns as a species of classical malapropism surprised me. While some of us (including me) have paid some lipservice to Zwicky’s definition, it’s hardly been a big part of forum discussions, and it’s hard for me to see that that conception has had much influence on how we’ve “treated” eggcorns. I think we’ve been largely schizophrenic—accepting the Zwicky definition in theory while almost completely ignoring it in practice.
Also, I think I interpreted David Bird’s comments on triviality somewhat differently from Kem. I assumed DB was asking just what the study of eggcorns (however defined) can tell us that’s of any import beyond our weird little hobby. Of course, the usual problem of what’s of “value/import” comes up here, and as far as society as a whole goes, the answer may be “nothing.” But I think linguistically eggcorns/folk etymologies have already made people realize in the last ten years or so that when English speakers confront a new multisyllabic word in English, their first impulse is to try to analyze it as a compound word or an “affixation”—a stem plus a prefix or suffix. That in itself is to me is an interesting and valuable insight into the processing of vocabulary by the brain. And while I’m obviously not a linguist, I can imagine that the study of eggcorns can help identify just what kinds of things speakers identify as being semantically equivalent and in what ways—the conclusions at the end of Sravana Reddy’s paper on eggcorns (which used examples drawn from the Database) pointed in that direction, even if the application of the computer models themselves really seemed to be the focus of the paper for her. I’ll be interested to see what David T has to say on this head if he has the time to comment.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2011-07-25 17:02:30)
Kem’s claim that we treat eggcorns as a species of classical malapropism surprised me.
The road to this assumption has been a gradual one. If you look at on this board, circa 2006/2007, the emphasis is on differentiating eggcorns and malapropisms (You can’t make a difference between two items unless they share something, of course, but that is not the same as saying an eggcorn is a malapropism.). In our later discussions, however, starting perhaps in 2008, David and Pat codified this perspective in their recent paper:
Yet eggcorns are, loosely defined, a sub-class of malapropisms.
I wouldn’t necessarily argue against this way of looking at eggcorns. For some who first encounter eggcorns, a connection to malapropisms might make the penny drop. Like all definitions, though, it hides as well as reveals. And, as Pat points out, we can’t assume that all of our listeners have a shared view of what constitutes a malapropism.
The road to this assumption has been a gradual one. If you look at earlier discussions on this board, circa 2006/2007, the emphasis is on differentiating eggcorns and malapropisms [...] In our later discussions, however, starting perhaps in 2008, we seem to be heading in the direction of making eggcorns a subset of malapropisms.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I feel I’ve been gradually moving in precisely the opposite direction from the one you’ve sketched out. I’d read Zwicky’s first eggcorns-are-malaprops post by late 2005, and I think I more or less accepted it as the judgment of the experts; it took me a long time to start wondering whether I really agreed with his definition of malapropism.
Last edited by patschwieterman (2011-07-26 00:17:34)