Eggcorns and Malaprops


Posted by tribeofa | Posted in Grammar and Copy, Website Scrub | | Posted on 09-22-2009

Are you a civil serpent who likes to really get down to brass roots? Do you work in an agency that handles emergences that require evaporating whole cities? Do you move fast because a rolling stone gathers no moths? You may be a malaprop and eggcorn savant.

What it is: A malaprop is a misused word that results in a nonsense sentence, or sometimes a sentence that makes sense, but expresses something completely different from what was intended. The name comes from a character in a restoration comedy, The Rivals, by Richard Sheridan, called Mrs. Malaprop. Similar blunders have been made famous in real life by Yogi Berra, Dan Quale, and George Bush.

You probably haven’t made any such obvious bloopers on your site, but subtler version of the malaprop can reach out bite you in tender places in your most public moments to hilarious effect to everyone but you.

(In)famous malaprops:

G.W. Bush, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • “I want to remind you all that in order to fight and win the war, it requires an expenditure of money that is commiserate with keeping a promise to our troops to make sure that they’re well-paid, well-trained, well-equipped.” (commensurate)
  • “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.” (hostage)
  • “When Iraq is liberated, you will be treated, tried and persecuted as a war criminal.” (prosecuted)
  • “And there is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I’m sorry it’s the case, and I’ll work hard to try to elevate it.” (alleviate)

Dan Quayle, courtesy of Snopes:

  • “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” (bonding)
  • “I stand by all the misstatements I have made.” (statements)

The media, also courtesy to Wikipedia:

  • It was reported in New Scientist that an office worker described a colleague as “a vast suppository of information.” (repository) The worker then apologised for his “Miss-Marple-ism.” (malapropismNew Scientist reported it as possibly the first time malapropism has been turned into a malapropism.’

This is malapropartistry that few of us could hope to match, but that won’t keep of us from trying.


What they are: eggcorns are words that are misheard as something that fits into the hearer’s known vocabulary and kind of makes sense. The word was coined by Mark Liberman – perhaps inadvertently – in Language Log when he described a woman who misheard the word acorns as egg cornsMondegreens are words or phrases that are misunderstood – a subtle and not always clear difference. The word is most often used to describe misunderstood lyrics. Mondegreen or eggcorn – they’re both fun to say. For the whole scoop, read Gavin Edwards entertaining essay on the subject here.

Some eggcorns and mondegreens I stub my sensibilities on regularly online and in the workplace:

  • a hair’s breath (should be a hair’s breadth – and not “hare-breath Harry,” either. Dog-breath, maybe.)
  • waiting with baited breath – ewwwww! Think about it! Bated breath! Thank you!
  • backpeddle – back pedal. Peddling backs sounds like on of those “I woke up in tub of ice” emails.
  • bare witness – fun for the jury, but probably warmer to bear witness
  • bear-faced lie – very descriptive, but bears don’t lie. Go with bare.
  • bold-faced lie – what with our increasing understanding of type faces, this seems to make sense, but really it’s bald-faced – similar to bare-faced. We also don’t grin and bare it, unless we want to annoy the sheriff. We bear it. I know…all these bare bears bearing it in the woods – it’s confusing.
  • could of – (could have or could’ve)
  • deep-seeded – another that seems sensible, but it’s deep-seated. No soil involved.
  • far-gone conclusion – (foregone conclusion)
  • for all intensive purposes – intents and purposes
  • free reign – King Louis had free reign. The revolution took care of that. Lesser beings have free rein of the horse, not the kingdom.
  • get your dandruff up – again I say, and I can’t say this enough – eeewwwww!! Dander!
  • get your nipples in a twist – while this may be titillating (sorry), it’s not correct. It’s your knickers that get twisted, unless you’re being tortured and that’s beyond the scope of this site.
  • hail and hearty – not unless you’re the weather. Hail can be balls of falling ice or homage to King Louis–either way, your head is in danger. Hale is a healthy state of being, which might achieve with kale and…never mind.
  • just assume – (just as soon)
  • knitpick – the real thing is the more disgusting one in this case. You are not repairing the sweater, you are picking at little tiny things, like nits, which, in case you don’t know, is another name for lice. Nitpick
  • laughing stalk – you could do this, if you’re a giggling pervert. You could hear it, if you have celery hallucinations. Barring those two cases, you must be a laughing stock.
  • on tenderhooks – hooks have no tendency to be tender. Tenterhooks.
  • past away – easy mistake to make, but if you have trouble remembering that your loved one has passed away, just use died.
  • hand-ringing – unless you’re Edwina Bellhands, you’re wringing those hands
  • keep your eyes pealed – eyes and fruit can be peeled; only bells can be pealed, unless, again, you’re Edwina.
  • straightjacket – a person can be in dire straits, requiring a straitjacket while sailing the Straits of Gilbralter. Or one might stick to the straight and narrow path.
  • take for granite – you mistook me for a rock?? That’s much worse than taking me for granted.
  • expatriot – nope. Expatriate.
  • chest of draws – chest of drawers
  • wreckless driver – means exactly the opposite of what you were going for – reckless. Perhaps you should just call him a feckless driver.

Think you’re exempt? Hah! As we grow more experienced, we depend more and more on that capacity that allows humans to be human – autopilot. The more we run on autopilot, the more we fluff it. Save yourself. Proof, proof, proof. Get someone else to proof. If you’re building a website, have it scrubbed!

For more eggcorn fun, check out The Eggcorn Database.

Website Scrub – Click Here!


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Comments (6)

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