"Eggcorn" makes the OED

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This is an auspicious moment: a Language Log-ism has been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. The latest quarterly update for the online revision of the OED includes this note:

eggcorn n.

As early as 1844, people were reinterpreting the word “acorn” as “eggcorn”, either deliberately, for humorous purposes, or in all innocence, in a struggle to analyse, in a way that made sense to them, what the word’s spelling must be: acorns are, after all, seeds which are somewhat egg-shaped, and in many dialects the formations acorn and eggcorn sound very similar. Since 2003, it has become a widely accepted term for this category of words as a whole, appearing in books and journals, and on the internet, often alongside its musical sibling, the mondegreen or misheard lyric (which first appeared in the OED in 2002). As such, it has now become an autological word: one which belongs to the category it describes.

Here is the 1844 citation for eggcorn as a folk-etymological spelling of acorn:

1844 S. G. MCMAHAN Let. 16 June in A. L. Hurtado John Sutter (2006) 130, I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn [acorn] bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.

And here is the second definition, with the quotation paragraph showing off its Language Log pedigree:

2. An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.
In allusion to sense 1, which is an example of such an alteration.

2003 M. LIBERMAN Egg Corns: Folk Etymol., Malapropism, Mondegreen? (Update) in languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu (Weblog) 30 Sept. (O.E.D. Archive), Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them ‘egg corns’, in the metonymic tradition of ‘mondegreen’. 2004 Boston Globe (Nexis) 12 Dec. K5 Shakespeare's Hamlet said he was ‘to the manner born’, but the eggcorn ‘to the manor born’ has wide currency. 2006 New Scientist 26 Aug. 52/2 Eggcorns often involve replacing an unfamiliar or archaic word with a more common one, such as ‘old-timer's’ disease for Alzheimer's. 2010 K. DENHAM & A. LOBECK Linguistics for Everyone i. 13 Crucially, eggcorns make sense, often more than the original words.

There's already some grumbling about the wording of the definition. On the American Dialect Society listserv, Mark Peters points out "a gigantic omission":

The key element of an eggcorn is that it's a *logical* mistake–it has to make sense. That's what distinguishes it from a malapropism or mondegreen. When my mom calls carpal tunnel syndrome "carnal tunnel-vision syndrome," that's no eggcorn, because it makes no sense (it is awesome, though).

I agree with Mark: at least at Language Log Plaza and over at the Eggcorn Database, we've talked about eggcorns needing to "make sense in a new way" (even if that "sense" is a bit semantically tenuous). Mark does concede that "maybe 'reinterpretation' is supposed to cover the logic part," but it would be nice to have it a bit more spelled out.

Meanwhile, Neal Whitman muses:

For that matter, I have never found "eggcorn" to be satisfactorily distinguished from "folk etymology". Is a folk etymology an eggcorn that has become standard?

Eggcorns certainly don't need to be standard, or even on their way to standard. (The founding example, eggcorn, is, of course, resolutely non-standard.) Whether eggcorn carves out a meaningful territory distinct from folk etymology is open to debate, as it has been since that baptismal post in 2003. At the time, Mark Liberman wrote that the original example of egg( )corn "is not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community." But folk etymology, construed broadly, can encompass this sort of idiosyncratic usage just as well as the more widespread alterations that lead to lasting diachronic change. For now, though, we won't quibble and instead will just bask in our lexicographical glory.

[Update: I neglected to mention that eggcorn is also in the latest edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary. The entry reads:

eggcorn n. a word or phrase that results from a mishearing or misinterpretation of another, an element of the original being substituted for one that sounds very similar or identical (e.g., tow the line instead of toe the line).
– ORIGIN early 21st cent.: with reference to a misinterpretation of acorn.

See a list of new NOAD words here.]


  1. Neal Goldfarb said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    2003 M. LIBERMAN Egg Corns: Folk Etymol., Malapropism, Mondegreen? (Update) in languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu (Weblog) 30 Sept. (O.E.D. Archive), Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them ‘egg corns’, in the metonymic tradition of ‘mondegreen’.

    I'd like to see someone try to antedate that sucker.

  2. Bryan said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    Rather, eggcorns are yolk etymologies.

  3. Neal Goldfarb said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    On a more serious (but related) note: Is there any other place in the OED in which the first attested example of a use of a word in a particular sense (or should that be "mention of a word"?) is a report of the very invention of that sense?

  4. Yuval said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    I'll let you know when the Hebrew translation for this makes it to Even-Shoshan.

  5. Nathan said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    @Neal Goldfarb: I don't have access to the OED, but I bet chortle qualifies.

  6. Sili said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    What about blogs being the earliest quoted use of a word? Is this a first?

  7. language hat said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    Congratulations, that's a real feather in the cap for the Log, and of course for Mark and Geoff in particular.

    Is there any other place in the OED in which the first attested example of a use of a word in a particular sense (or should that be "mention of a word"?) is a report of the very invention of that sense?

    Yes, I'm sure there are a number of them, but I'm not sure how to find them quickly.

  8. Harry Campbell said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    @Neal Goldfarb There are many, many such cases.
    Congratulations Language Loggers, it's a real monument.

  9. JFM said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    >Mark Liberman wrote that the original example of egg( )corn "is not a folk
    >etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire
    >speech community."

    Isn't it likely that many/most folk etymologies start with one person, though? So perhaps a folk etymology is an eggcorn that has become popular.

    [(myl) Many eggcorns are spontaneously re-invented many times, because they represent a plausible mis-hearing and sensible re-analysis of a more-or-less opaque word or phrase. And the classic examples of folk etymologies are indeed eggcorns that have hit the big time, like charterhouse from chartreuse, or shamefaced from shamefast "restrained by shame".]

  10. Cameron said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    There are probably lots of OED entries that cite the original passages inn which the word is explicitly coined.

    I don't have the OED at hand at the moment, but I suspect the article for "chortle" has Humpty Dumpty's gloss of the term in Through the Looking Glass as its first citation.

  11. JFM said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    (Oh dart. I just saw that I merely repeated the quote by Neil Whitman. Anywho, I too fail to see the distinction.)

  12. Charles Gaulke said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    The distinction between an eggcorn and a folk etymology is perfectly simple. An eggcorn is a word (potentially, though not necessarily, derived from a folk etymology – it could also be based on mishearing or incorrection), whereas an etymology, folk or otherwise, is an analysis of the development of a word.

  13. groki said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    congrats on the fresh coinage! (LL: it's minty.)

    updating the baptismal post to point to the OED entry would give the self-referential helix another twist.

  14. John Cowan said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    Charles Gaulke: Folk etymology is used in two senses, the one you mean — an explanation of the origin of a word that is commonly believed — and another one, which is a type of linguistic change supposedly based on such a belief, such as samblind > sand-blind or bryd-guma > bridegroom, when the elements sam- and -guma were no longer understood. The only reason these two aren't eggcorns is that, as myl says, they have become universal.

  15. Sid Smith said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    Forty-odd years ago, one of those footnotes in The Reader's Digest offered "dire rear" as a jokey reading for…well, I suppose you're there already.**

    But can an eggcorn be deliberate?

    ** Note how I avoided having to look up the spelling of that notorious word.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    I think some people have misunderstood Neal Goldfarb's question. As I understand him, he's asking for cases where the first citation is a report of the invention. Not "he chortled in his joy" or even "Being the opposite of xenophobia I propose to call this state of mind oikophobia…" (Roger Scruton here), but "Geoff Pullum suggests… we should call them 'egg corns'".

  17. Troy S. said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

    Indeed, congratulations are in order. I also believe "chortle" is originally from Through the Looking Glass. Hm, now what's the name of the paradox that adresses whether "autological" is autological?

    [(myl) "Jabberwocky" was originally published in Mischmasch, a periodical that Charles Dodgson (who later wrote under the name of Lewis Carroll) produced for the amusement of his family starting around 1855. But I'm not certain when the chortle line first appeared.]

  18. groki said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    @Sid Smith: with my rhotic accent, the "dire rear" joke took me a while to get. thanks for the footnote.

  19. George said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    The OED, its official. Congratulations!

    ("carnal tunnel-vision syndrome" – A condition suffered by peeping Toms?)

  20. Steve Morrison said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    @ Troy S.:

    It's the Grelling-Nelson paradox.

  21. Andrew Garrett said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    Does the difference between "eggcorn" and "folk etymology" really just have to do with degree of acceptance in the population? If so, does that mean (in the understanding of those who originated the term "eggcorn") that folk etymologies (e.g. the textbook examples "bridegroom", "sparrowgrass", "oldtimers disease") originate as eggcorns and eventually become folk etymologies? How do we decide whether "sparrowgrass" is a folk etymology or an eggcorn? I've been somewhat unclear, for a while, as to the distinction being drawn here. We do not usually have different names for types of change (e.g. "palatalization" vs. "idio-palatalization") depending on how many people use them, or how often.

  22. Andrew Garrett said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

    P.S. My previous question arises from very practical considerations. Those of us who teach and write about language change have to say something in Historical Linguistics 101 about these types of lexical change. When we talk about contamination, blending, folk etymology, etc., should we also talk about eggcorns? If so, should we also use special terms for cases of blending and folk etymology that remain individual idiosyncrasies? I am eager to be persuaded that the conventional typology needs expanding.

  23. Andrew Garrett said,

    September 16, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    P.P.S. I meant "cases of blending and contamination", not "cases of blending and folk etymology". Sorry for my bad proofing.

  24. Azimuth said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 1:20 am

    "Rather, eggcorns are yolk etymologies."

    Amaizing pun, Bryan.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 2:41 am

    Mazel tov

    @ Neal Goldfarb "Is there any other place in the OED in which the first attested example of a use of a word in a particular sense (or should that be "mention of a word"?) is a report of the very invention of that sense?"

    The OED seems to be down at the moment, so I can't check this, but I seem to recall that while not specifically referring directly to a specific inventor, the first cite for "debrief" is a peeve about its use by some branch of the British military. So it is at least a comment on its invention.

  26. A Smith said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 7:32 am

    @Neal Goldfarb and other: The first quotation for 'bit' in OED is:
    1948 C. E. SHANNON in Bell Syst. Techn. Jrnl. July 380 The choice of a logarithmic base corresponds to the choice of a unit for measuring information. If the base 2 is used the resulting units may be called binary digits, or more briefly bits, a word suggested by J. W. Tukey.

  27. Breffni said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    The first OED citation for both googol and googolplex is

    1940 KASNER & NEWMAN Math. & Imagination i. 23 The name ‘googol’ was invented by a child (Dr. Kasner's nine-year-old nephew) who was asked to think up a name for a very big number, namely, 1 with a hundred zeros after it… At the same time that he suggested ‘googol’ he gave a name for a still larger number: ‘Googolplex’.

    And congratulations, Language Log!

  28. a George said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    aren't eggcorns just a symptom of some kind of un-educatedness? 'Folk etymology' for this phenomenon is a euphemism for 'un-educated', in my view. Politically correct and safe to use.
    It cannot be termed 'illiteracy' (one limit case) but rather like the parallel case of having full command of some written expression but no clue as how to pronounce it. Of course 'educated' is a relative term; if you are not 'street wise' you would be un-educated in that environment (rhyming slang).

    [(myl) In fact, highly educated people often create eggcorns — the more words and phrases you know, and the more creative you are, the more likely it is that you'll mis-analyze a new-to-you word or phrase that you encounter only in spoken form.

    But even if you were right that only relatively uneducated people create such re-analyses, saying that "folk etymology is a (euphemistic) synonym for uneducated" would be like saying that "subtraction is a synonym for mathematics" or "Topeka is a synonym for the planet earth". Terms like "malapropism" and "eggcorn" refer to rather specific sorts of errors, not to errors in general nor to a lack of education or any other hypothetical cause.]

  29. a George said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    ah, there was nobody in between. I don't know if it is good form to talk back to a list owner, but permit me to say that the analogies seem far-fetched — to me; I do not understand them. To me it is all a question of context. It sounds logical that the more words and phrases you know the more chance there is that you think you have a hit, and the context (if somewhat tenuous upon better analysis) does not warn you. Are such hits not accidental? Is the purported creativity not then a question of subjecting the hit to a selection process and to decide that it is rather funny-cum-apt, after all? And thereby an eggcorn is created. But most of the examples in the present thread seem to relate to persons who are not "educated" enough in the classical sense to know the difference between, e.g., carnal and carpal. Or sloppy in their hearing or so aloof that they think that the speaker has mispronounced.
    About the word 'uneducated': that is also context dependent, and in more than one way. One is the environment, such as slang or jargon — you are uneducated in a certain environment if you do not understand the jargon. Another is in a dictionary: you will see "folk etymology" used after some etymological explanation, but not "uneducated". But is it not the better term, if there is a perfectly authorized etymology already existing? Those who authorize are those in intellectual power, the 'educated'.
    I appreciate the difference between 'malapropism' and 'eggcorn' and the categories they relate to, but I agree with comments above that they are frequently originated (rather than created) by individuals, and not by a group.

  30. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    a, Mark is saying that you're misusing the word "synonym" in a way that ill comports with a self-announced lover of linguistic precision.

  31. a George said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    @ Rodger C: if I am that 'a', then I would point out that I wrote 'euphemism' and not 'euphemistic synonym' That was Mark's construction. I am not yet convinced that these two expressions have precisely the same connotations. But please convince me, in the interest of precision.
    While I am at it, I would like to contribute an eggcorn that is certainly commercial by now (in Denmark). If you buy screws, you have a selection of heads. You may use Philips, Pozidrive, or Torx (these are all trademarks),and you have to use special tool bits. The latter name has recently been retermed 'Thors', which is not an unnatural word (rather name) in Danish, most likely because it is difficult to distinguish the pronunciations of Torx and Thors (th is hard in Danish). Now, is this uneducated? Or is it folk etymology? I have no problem at all with development in language, only the way we categorize change.

  32. Robert Beard said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    Beating the OED is easy:

    Eggcorn (n.) 1. A result or output of folk etymology. (It is very unusual that an example of a class is chosen to name the class itself, but this has the all the scientific advantages of calling all rays "stingrays", all houses "birdhouses", and all dogs "hotdogs".) 2. Corn baked together with one or more eggs. 3. A corn on the toe shaped like an egg.

  33. Rodger C said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    @a George: First, thank you for correcting me. Second, all eggcorns are no doubt the result of ignorance, but the question is whether this ignorance is a symptom of a lack of education (of what kind?).

  34. a George said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    @ Rodger C: As to the generational mechanism for eggcorns, it obviously has to do with misunderstanding, probably mostly in the aural domain. A dyslectic person might do the same in the written domain. So, we are discussing causes for misunderstanding an utterance, wrong expectations. Already in the 1930s serious research was performed on comprehension indexes in relation to telephone transmission; various standard vocabularies were used, and I would not be surprised if these investigations created numerous eggcorns, only a few of which may have survived. But can we conversely predict that someone who is a universalist and with perfect hearing will never inadvertently originate an eggcorn?

  35. wuffencuckoo said,

    September 18, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    Does 'redingote' qualify?

    English 'riding coat' –> French 'redingoat' –> English 'redingote'

  36. Ryan said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 2:13 am

    The OED seems to have "channel" wrong:

    In the example of "Meg Ryan channeling Nicole Kidman" channel is a kind of controlled possession, akin to how you'd channel a body of water by creating a channel or how a medium or psychic would channel a spirit (Let's channel our energies…) and NOT "to emulate" or "to be inspired by."

  37. Dan S said,

    September 19, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    eggcorn has now been accepted into the list of autological words curated by mathematician Henry Segerman of U. Texas, Austin.

    Thanks, @Steve Morrison, for that link to the Grelling-Nelson paradox on wikipedia, which linked to that list.

  38. Nick Lamb said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 9:04 am

    Ryan, I think the trouble is that you aren't familiar with this sense, and you're trying to relate it to a sense you do know. The new sense of "channelling" is derived from the sense you're talking about but has now taken on a life of its own.

    A quick Google finds me, e.g.

    “I've been using this algorithm for years in compiler classes as an example to explain and motivate shift and reduce steps in parsing, but always channelling Knuth rather than Dijkstra."

    (Don) Knuth is alive and well although (Edsger) Dijkstra died a few years back. The author is not a medium or psychic, but an academic Computer Scientist, and they're saying that when they're explaining shift/reduce to the class they're doing it the way (they imagine) Knuth would do it, in contrast to the way Dijkstra might do it if he were still alive and you could understand his scrawl.

    So "to emulate" or "be inspired by" seem like perfectly good definitions.

  39. a George said,

    September 20, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Re: Torx and Thors above; a reader made me aware that I had left out the argument for the delusion and creation of the eggcorn in question. Here it is:
    the part of a traditional screw interacting with a screwdriver is called a slot, slit, or groove in English, Schlitz in German. In Danish it is called kærv, and this term is also used for notch (English), Kerbe (German). When the interacting part is changed for Phillips, Pozidriv, (both cross-head) or Torx the screw is now identified by its head in English, but Danish retains kærv (that should have been reserved for the traditional screwdriver, oh, well). The cross-head is duly called 'krydskærv'. We hence have 3 uses of one term, a source for confusion.
    So, ‘Torx kærv’ would be the correct technical term in Danish, but it has been misheard as ‘Thors kærv’, the slit (=head) belonging to Thor (a given name, and mythological). A genitive. And available from builder's markets.

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