Altar Ego

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Patrick Howley ("Standoff in D.C.", The American Spectator 10/8/2011) describes his activities as a journalist and agent provocateur at the OWS protests in Washington D.C.:

The fastest-running protesters charged up the steps of Washington's National Air and Space Museum Saturday afternoon to infiltrate the building and hang banners on the "shameful" exhibits promoting American imperialism. As the white-uniformed security guards hurried to physically block the entrances, only a select few — myself, for journalistic purposes, included — kept charging forward. […]

Minutes earlier, I had been among those blocking major D.C. roads chanting "We're unstoppable" — and from beneath my unshaven left-wing altar ego, I worried that we might actually be. But just as the lefties couldn't figure out how to run their assembly meeting (many process points, I'm afraid to report, were left un-twinkled), so too do they lack the nerve to confront authority. From estimates within the protest, only ten people were pepper-sprayed, and as far as I could tell I was the only one who got inside the museum.

Since this is Language Log and not Journalistic Ethics Log, our interest here is entirely in Mr. Lowrey's lovely "altar ego" eggcorn, an inspired bit of lexicographical poetry as yet undocumented in Chris Waigl's Eggcorn Database.

Here's the obligatory screen shot:

And since the article as a whole has been removed from the American Spectator's site — surely not just because some of a few negative comments? —  I've copied the Google Cache version here.

Most of the other internet hits for this phrase are conscious word-play — among the various books with this title are one subtitled "Gender, Property, and the Cult of Marriage", and another with the subtitle "The Mystery of Jimmy Swaggart".

But there are some other sincere "altar ego" eggcorns out there. Thus in Rick Cypert, America's Agatha Christie, 2005:

As mystery writer Susan Dare was Mignon Eberhart's altar ego at the beginning of her career, so too do these elderly, wise and witty, bourbon-nipping aunts become the Eberhart altar ego at the end of her career.

Or in the Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography v. 1, 2006:

The cover depicted a perfume bottle to which a photograph by Man Ray of Duchamp dressed as female altar ego Rose Selavy had been affixed.

And many others…


  1. Robert Coren said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    Of course it could just be a typo.

    I also find "many process points…were left un-twinkled" to be a bit puzzling, and can't decide if it's of any linguistic interest.

    [(myl) It's explained in the body of his story:

    It was a miracle that they even managed to get to the museum. At the Freedom Plaza planning assembly Friday night, facilitators from struggled to keep order with a system they had invented — one in which new ideas are called "process points" and "twinkles" (i.e. twinkling your fingers) stand for "yay."


  2. grackle said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    I had to look up "twinkling your fingers" and found only the urban dictionary's definition for "twinkle fingers" which indicates that it is wiggling the fingers quickly, sort of an air-keyboard gesture. Is this it? That is to say, with the explanation I'm almost as puzzled as I was without it. It doesn't seem to have wide usage.

  3. David Y said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    The …/archive/… version has been removed from the American Spectator's website, but a …/blog/… version is still there (and searchable). Link:

    Delightfully, "altar ego" is still present in that version.

  4. David Y said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    Also: my "altar ego" is presumably the version of me who shows up at church. Or confession.

  5. Janice Byer said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

    My "altar ego" is the version of moi sacrificed to my superior pretense of humility.

  6. Brian said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    I'm afraid I don't get the eggcorn part here. How does one read "altar ego" except as a typo? (Short of a context in which David Y's suggestion would apply.)

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    I belong to a community that operates by consensus, which can make for a lot of discussion. One of the things you have to learn, in such a community, is a certain kind of discursive discipline. For instance, nothing can make an discussion more interminable-feeling than a parade of people who all want to say what other people have already said, so we "twinkle," which is kind of a hands in the air finger waggling. It helps people give a sense of the feelings in the room without having to take a lot of time. So it's not exactly "yay," more like "I support that." Of course, people also say things like "I would have to twinkle that," which is kind of like saying "LOL."

  8. David Green said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:01 pm

    Part of the problem (IMHO) is that "alter" (as an adjective) isn't found in English, whereas "ego" is. So the Latin phrase gets dissected.

  9. Allan L. said,

    October 9, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

    Just a bunch of alter boys. At least they weren't tinkling the ivories.

  10. Dakota said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 1:29 am

    Freudian slip for someone (proofreader included) with a religious agenda? If so, it doesn't seem to slip in the opposite direction. A quick google for "alter boy" and "church alter" doesn't show anything but intentional (place name) or word-play use of the "alter" spelling.

  11. maidhc said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 5:01 am

    There's another one I've seen a few different places, but the best example is the old doowop song that goes something like

    Then you put a ring on her finger
    My darling, please put me on trial
    In your heart you want her for a lover
    But each step draws you closer to the aisle

    I have a couple of LPs of NYC acapella groups recorded right off the street and issued by some fly-by-night record company, wherein the title of this song is spelled "To the Isle". In this case, I suspect the producer didn't even listen to the song, but just asked the group what it was called. (There is no composer's name or copyright or publishing rights information on these LPs which I picked up in a semi-temporary record store in Greenwich Village many years ago.)

    I've seen the same mistake other places too.

    The alter boys probably didn't show up until Andy Warhol really got his thing going.

    Our local paper (which appears to believe that spellcheck is as good as an editor) published an article a while back about choosing wedding globlets.

  12. Rubrick said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 5:01 am

    Riffing off-topically on Dakota's observation: A friend of mine once devised a superhero named Alter Boy, who had the power to change anything to something one letter off. His origin story: Originally, he was an ordinary altar boy. Then he used his superpower to change himself to Alter Boy, thus gaining his powerpower.

  13. Kathryn said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    Dakota–try "at the alter." In the first five pages of results the majority are, indeed, substitution of "alter" for "altar" (mostly in the phrase "left at the altar"–who knew that happened so often?), and none of them appears to be intentional wordplay.

  14. briggslaw said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    Perhaps "twinkling" is the ASL sign for "deaf applause." See animation at

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 8:18 am

    The reduced second-syllable vowel in "altar" does not consistently correspond to the -ar spelling (compare, e.g., "quasar" to "solar") and thus must be learned in childhood more self-consciously (without even getting into the additional work needed because the sound most commonly spelled -er can also come out as -ir, -or, or -ur as well as -ar). I suppose that for some people that self-conscious effort could tend to interfere with simultaneously recalling the closer-to-default spelling of the homophone "alter." Consider also "fur tree" which seems sometimes to be conscious wordplay but other times just a mistake.

  16. Andy Averill said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 9:21 am


    The alter boys probably didn't show up until Andy Warhol really got his thing going.

    That's a pun, not a mistake. Andy Warhol was famous for featuring transgendered people in his movies and paintings.

  17. Pete said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 11:50 am

    I agree with Brian – I don't think it can be classed as a full-blown eggcorn because altar ego doesn't make the "superficial sense" required of eggcorns.

    It's more than just a typo though – I'd call it a spelling mistake, or a confused word.

  18. Zythophile said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

    This discussion reminds me of the old joke about what women think when they contemplate a wedding: "Aisle, altar, hymn."

  19. Tony said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

    Is there any particular reason my comment from yesterday didn't show up? Just curious. Thanks!

  20. LDavidH said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    As an aside, the Christian rock group Petra had a song (many years ago) called "Altar Ego", about hypocrites in church – in other words, a deliberate and quite ingenious word play!

  21. Chris said,

    October 10, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    A friend of mine commented this week that a surprising number of places that sell kits for needlepointed church kneeler cushions seem to think that churches have "alters" (or "alter rails" or "alter steps").

  22. Gene Callahan said,

    October 12, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    "That's a pun, not a mistake. Andy Warhol was famous for featuring transgendered people in his movies and paintings."

    And he was a devout Christian to boot!

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