Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
We don’t have a formal definition we can apply to eggcorns, so who’s to say what’s too strict and what’s too loose?
The imagery transfer in “eggcorn” is hardly pristine (“Egg? Not all acorns are not egg-shaped, and most of them have these funny caps and pointy ends. And acorns are nuts, not maize or any other grain. What WAS the person thinking of?”). The image transfer in “debotchery” is as good as, perhaps better than, the one in “eggcorn.”
Too bad that we are committed to the word “eggcorn.” Wouldn’t “a debotchery” be a great name for this kind of slip? Self-referential, slightly racy, good mouthfeel.
I’d like to address each of these points, in reverse order.
First, I agree that “debotchery” is wonderfully evocative and fun. The idea of slips of the tongue as “botched” speech is also nice. But I disagree that it is a better eggcorn than egg corn.
Furthermore, I would argue (and have: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/forum/view … p?pid=5789) that the imagery in egg corn is right on. “Funny caps” notwithstanding, acorns are oval in shape, ergo egg.* And while they are not maize, they are both seeds and small hard objects, both of which are meanings of corn.
And finally, while the definition of eggcorn may not be formal, several eggcornistas do approach it (though usually from the negative – what it is not).
Arnold Zwicky, at greater length than I care to quote here:
http://220.127.116.11/%7Emyl/languagelog/ … 00074.html
It’s not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community. It’s not a malapropism, because “egg corn” and “acorn” are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like “allegory” for “alligator,” “oracular” for “vernacular” and “fortuitous” for “fortunate” are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content). It’s not a mondegreen because the mis-construal is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.
http://18.104.22.168/%7Emyl/languagelog/ … 00018.html
and Chris Waigl:
Not every homophone substitution is an eggcorn. The crucial element is that the new form makes sense: for anyone except lexicographers or other people trained in etymology, more sense than the original form in many cases. The more brazen among the eggcorn users may eloquently defend and explain the underlying semantics (metaphors, metonymies, convincing but erroneous accounts of the supposed history).
Most of our discussion on this forum is about whether a certain expression meets the minimum requirements for being an eggcorn. For most submissions we can reach rough agreement. This suggests that we share a notion of what makes an expression an eggcorn. I have never seen a formal statement of that shared understanding, at least not one that I would call formal, but the lack of such a definition doesn’t seem to hinder the discussion.
But when we go beyond the minimal criteria for listing an expression as an eggcorn and try to talk about what makes one eggcorn better than another, we quickly move beyond our tacit points of agreement. Mark Lieberman, for example brings up the issue of homonymity. An eggcorn, to be sure, has to have a sound that is reasonably close to the word it replaces. But is a perfect homonym a better eggcorn than one that is just close in sound? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question. A little bit of dissonance might help. It could be evidence that an eggcorn has actually happened-the speaker is willing to lean away from aural fidelity to grab the semantic ring. Lean too far to get the ring, of course, and the horse trips over a malapropism. But a little lean, some would say, tends to improve the performance. And what about the issue Chris Waigl raises-do eggcorns have to have a strong and defensible semantics? For some eggcorns, and I think the expression “eggcorn” is one of these, the defense is weak. But sometimes the weakness of the defense doesn’t detract from the beauty of the eggcorn-the fact that speakers are willing to go out on a limb to make the substitution work argues for the appeal of the substitution. Finally, what about the double-barreled substitution in the expression “eggcorn?” Cramming two mistakes into one expression, some might say, makes it a better eggcorn. And it may. But it also makes it atypical, which decreases its value as the flagship expression.
In short, I think the heat/light ratio is going to be far too high if we try to extend the area of tacit agreement much beyond the line that divides eggcorns from non-eggcorns.
Last edited by kem (2008-04-11 23:04:04)
I think “better eggcorn” is totally subjective.
“eggcorn” to me is better than many others because it’s more clever (oh, and ‘egg’ has never implied exact shape to me; it is the ‘hard shell w/ new life inside’ idea that makes it an egg), because the mishearing is more surprising (true homonyms are shaky eggcorns, in my mind), and because it brings up an entirely fresh way of looking at the OBJECT ITSELF.
There’s no “good,” “better,” “best” that can be defined universally. Not in ANY area, actually.
And what about the issue Chris Waigl raises-do eggcorns have to have a strong and defensible semantics? For some eggcorns, and I think the expression “eggcorn” is one of these, the defense is weak. But sometimes the weakness of the defense doesn’t detract from the beauty of the eggcorn-the fact that speakers are willing to go out on a limb to make the substitution work argues for the appeal of the substitution.
Could you explain a bit more what you mean by strong/weak defense?
If you mean the force with which I or any other analyst defend a favored analysis, I think you move too far away from what (in my opinion) should matter – the thoughts and behaviors of language users. But that’s probably not what you mean.
If you mean something like semantic distance, or the amount of ‘work’ necessary to understand a user’s thinking, you may be on to something. I’m not entirely sure what makes such defense stronger or weaker, though.
Consider three examples: eggcorn, as described above; pus jewel, which tends to contain fluid (pus) and be small, but not valuable or made of stone (jewel); and debotchery, which contains some sense of ruin.
Which of these three has the strongest defense, and how so? And by all means, do not feel obligated to accept my defenses here, but please substitute your own.
Or, alternately, provide your own examples and describe which of them have stronger and weaker defenses, and why.
As you surmise, nilep, I mean by “defense” the sort of contortions the speaker’s mind goes through when making the substitution, not the debate score of the eggcorn’s analyst.
To make the eggcorn “eggcorn” work, the user has to appeal to facets of both “egg” and “corn” that can be woven into an alternate imagery. For “egg,” the speaker has to throw away everything about an egg except the roundish shape (e.g., the delicacy of the shell, the fact that one end of the egg is larger than the other, the lack of a point at the end, etc). For “corn,” the user loses everything about cornness except that a dry grain is hard and it can grow into a plant. Imagine picking up an acorn and responding to a child’s question, “What is it?” Would you start by saying, “well, it’s a sort of egg, except….” Unless the child knew nothing except eggs, an egg image would not be a good place to begin the explanation. “Corn,” for a British child at least (i.e., what AmEng speakers mean by “grain”), might be a better starting point.
“Pus jewel” seems to me to be much more defensible. Its imagery does not require that we jettison most of the attributes of “pus” and “jewel.” A pustule may or may not be hard like a jewel, but it often has the transparency and glow that we associate with a jewel.
Perhaps in saying one eggcorn is more defensible than another I am thinking of the process we go through when we evaluate whether a metaphor is a good one. Metaphors don’t have to walk on all four feet to work. But they ought to walk on three feet. “Surfing” the Internet with a browser is a potent metaphor because it summons up so many parallels with sea surfing: being carried along by the power of hyperlinks, leading a bohemian lifestyle, getting dumped from the wild ride by 404s, etc. Calling Shaquille O’Neal a “seven-foot tree,” however, is not a good metaphor-we borrow almost nothing from the concept of a tree except its height. The tree analogy makes its minor point and falls dead to the ground. The substitution at work in a good eggcorn strives, as does a good metaphor, for multidimensionality. We want the alternate imagery to map to the old imagery at many levels. “Debotchery” is a good eggcorn because it sets “bauch” and “botch” side by side. The comparison is fertile-we can think of so many ways in which a bauch could be a botch.
Not to lose my original point, though-we are not going to elicit much agreement on this forum if we start ranking eggcorns. We seem to share enough semantics to reach a general agreement on whether a language slip crosses the line into eggcornicity, but that is about all we share. Sometimes it is the very poverty of the metaphor behind the eggcorn that helps us reach agreement on whether or not an expression is an eggcorn.
Last edited by kem (2008-05-01 18:34:42)
We seem to agree on just about everything – except our conclusions.
I suppose I should spare everyone yet another walk through my mental ‘defenses’ – I will just note that, in my own mental lexicon, an acorn is much more similar to a barleycorn than debauch is to botch. (I never use the adjective bauch, which OED suggests is Scots.)
Instead, let me agree with your conclusion that, separate minds being separate, we will not all share the same ‘defenses’ – nor, importantly, will other language users. Therefore, we won’t get very far in agreeing on a ranking of better eggcorns (or debotcheries).
By the by, I’d love to argue more about the nature of metaphor, but I’ll leave that for another time. I think this is another area where we essentially agree – metaphor is absolutely the right place to look for comparable “contortions [of] the speaker’s mind.”
I like “eggcorn” because it is a noun and it , in its pronunciation, illustrates what one is. It also comes from the saying, “even a blind hog finds an acorn every once in a while,” which makes a nice image of what we do here: hunt for more discoveries. It’s a hard bill to fill for any old word.
Last edited by booboo (2008-04-18 21:42:24)
Here’s a little something to stir debate:
In college in the ‘70s, in an English comp. class, we were assigned a book titled, “Language Awareness” (which, I believe, I still have). One chapter covered what this site calls “eggcorn,” but which the book titled, “Bunkerisms,” after the Archie Bunker character from the long-running series, “All In The Family.” One example of a Bunkerism I recall was this line from Archie to his wife:
“Edith, don’t just stand there like a pillow of salt!”
So… it seems that what once was previously labeled a Bunkerism has been, perhaps by sheer exposure of the Internets (tip o’ the hat to GW Bush), replaced by the term “eggcorn.”
The question is: does the author who coined “Bunkerism” receive any credit for same, or is the term (and credit) doomed to obscurity—and replacement—by whoever later coined the term “eggcorn?”
Bunkerisms are considered a sub-species of malaprop, and we generally differentiate malapropisms from eggcorns – though obviously we don’t quite agree on how or where to draw that line. My recollection is that Bunkerisms generally result from a lexical blend; that is, two different words are smashed together to create a malapropism. For example, suppository remarks blends supposition with derogatory.
The authors who coined Bunkerism, Alfred Rosa and Paul Eschholz, were actually co-editors of Language Awareness. If that book did not give them proper credit, they have no one to blame but themselves. Their article “Bunkerisms: Archie’s Suppository Remarks in All in the Family” was published in the Journal of Popular Culture in 1972.
Egg corn, by the way, was suggested by Geoffrey Pullum in 2003, but credit is also due to his fellow Language Log bloggers Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky. I’m not sure when the white space was lost.
Malaprop, of course, is named for Mrs. Malaprop from The Rivals by Richard Sheridan (c.1775).
Man, I’d forgotten all about Bunkerisms. The last two posts led me to some googling, and I found a little collection of Bunkerisms that members of a heroin detox forum put together. Credit to the authors: http://www.heroin-detox.com/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=13093 (Search for “bunkerism” and you’ll find the beginning of the relevant discussion.) I can’t vouch for their authenticity, but they’re entertaining:
My favorite Bunkerism when he referred to a gynecologist as a “groinacologist”.
The sexual act was never constipated.
Paragorically….I will not let you ever talk about our sex life.
In bed, I’m totally impudent.
The titular head…that’s the mother, ain’t it?
Men gets these here, waddya call, surges, where the chromostones are burlin’ over.
Back since time immamoral.
“If God gets sore enough at you Edith, he could turn your jawbone into an ass.”
Like the Good Book says: “Let him who is without sin be the rolling stone.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman’s corns.”
“You can’t squeeze blood out of a tulip.”
“I ain’t in a happy frame of mood.
Some day I hope to get around to saying something about the word “eggcorn”—I’ve been thinking about this topic forever. But it’s just going to have to wait till grades are in.