Regina Patrick has a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and has a love of language.
In 1844, frontiersman Samuel Green McMahan wrote to a frienda:
“I am bungler [at writing], but what you cant read mayby you caan gess at it. I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I cann not get her and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.”1
In modern spelling: “I am a bungler [at writing], but what you can’t read maybe you can guess at it. I hope you are as hearty as you used to be and that you have plenty of egg corn bread which I can not get here and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.”
“Egg corn bread? What is that?” you may be wondering. It is not bread made from corn with kernels shaped like eggs and it is not bread made from corn with kernels as white as eggs. It is not made from corn at all. It is made from acorns!b
The pronunciation of “acorn” as “egg corn” has been described as a type of oronym (pronounced “OH-roh-nim”). An oronym is a word or phrase that sounds similar to another word or phrase. Several types of oronyms exist:
- Malapropism: the erroneous use of one word for a similarly sounding correct word such as saying, “the binnacle of my career” instead of “the pinnacle of my career” (a binnacle is a stand that houses a ship’s compass and other navigational instruments; a pinnacle is the most successful point or culmination of something);
- Homonym: words that have the same sound but different spellings and different meanings such as to/two/too, pray/prey, and flour/flower;
- Mondegreen: a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a poem or song lyric in a way that gives the phrase a new meaning such as hearing “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen” for the correct “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green”c;
- Homophone: a series of two or more syllables with a similar sound but different meanings such as ice cream/I scream, depend/deep end, and four candles/fork handles.
However, the pronunciation of “acorn” as “egg corn” does not fully have the characteristics of the oronym types mentioned above. For example, it is not a homophone because, although “acorn” and “egg corn” sound similar, acorns exist but egg corns do not. For the same reason, it is not a malapropism.
McMahan’s spelling of “acorn” as “egg corn” may have been influenced by his dialect. In some English dialects, “egg” is pronounced “ayg” (i.e., with a long a sound) rather than as “ehg” (i.e., with a short e sound). Therefore, acorn is pronounced more like “ayg corn”; hence, “egg corn.”
In 2003, linguist Mark Liberman2 related on his language blog, Language Log,d a story of a woman who wrote “egg corns” for “acorns” throughout a text. He asked readers of his language blog what the phenomenon of mishearing the syllables of one word as two or more words should be called. A colleague, Geoffrey Pullum, suggested “it should be called (of course) an eggcorn.”3 The name stuck.
Some examples of eggcorns in English you may have heard are
- “Jerusalem artichoke” for “girasole artichoke” (girasole, pronounced “JEE-rah-SOH-lay,” is from the Italian for “sunflower” and sounds like “Jerusalem” to English speakers unfamiliar with Italian. Artichoke refers to the taste of the edible tuber of the plant, which is actually a type of wild daisy.)
- “sparrow grass” (in some dialects) for “asparagus”
- “old timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease”
- “chester drawers” for “chest of drawers”
- “doggy dog world” for “dog-eat-dog world”
- “beckon call” for “beck and call”
- “Lip-sing” for “lip-sync” (i.e., mouthing words of a song in synchronization to a taped version of the song)
Foreign words or phrases are a great source of eggcorns because English speakers replace unfamiliar foreign sounds with familiar English words. This replacement becomes particularly evident in a person’s writing, as in the following examples:
- “bone apple tea” (French: bon appetit, meaning “good appetite” [i.e., “enjoy your meal”]; pronounced “BOHN ah-peh-TEE” in French and English)
- “hall of cost” (Greek: holokauston, meaning “whole burnt” [i.e., Holocaust]; pronounced “HOH-loh-KOW-stone” in Greek and “HOL-luh-KAWST” in English)
- “none shallot” (French: nonchalant, meaning “feeling or appearing casually calm and relaxed”; pronounced “nohn-SHAH-lohn” in French and “NON-shuh-lunt” in English; a shallot is an edible bulb in the onion family)
- “crow’s ear” (French: croisier, meaning “cross bearer”—referring to a hooked staff carried by bishops and abbots in religious ceremonies; pronounced “CROH-zee-ay” in French and “CROH-zee-er” in English)
- “witchy board” for “Ouija board” (the source of the word “Ouija” is unknown; in English, “Ouija” is pronounced “wee-jee” or “wee-juh”; a Ouija board is used by spiritualists as a divining tool)
- “cray fish” (French: écrevisse, meaning “little crab”; pronounced “AY-kre-VEE” in French and “CRAY-fish” in English)
In spoken language, eggcorns can sound like a slight mispronunciation of a word or phrase. When written, eggcorns can give the impression that a person is a bad speller or not very smart. They can also turn written content into unintentional comedic material, which reduces the impact of a writer’s intended message, as in these examples from twitter posts4:
- “I always ovary act [overreact] to small stuff.”
- “Twitter is my alter eagle [alter ego].”
- “I can't go through mini pulse [menopause] at 21, can I?”
- “Mainchick eats flaming young [filet mignon]”
- “If you buy one of those cars, your pretty set up for sue aside [suicide]”
How to avoid eggcorns in your writing so that you convey the message you mean to convey? Some tips that may help:
- Read a lot and from different genres (i.e., styles of literature). Reading material from different genres increases a reader's exposure to words, especially words borrowed from other languages, that are spelled differently from how they are pronounced.
- Ask skilled professional (e.g., editors, proofreaders) or someone who is very skilled in English grammar, syntax (i.e., the arrangement of words and phrases in a sentence), spelling, etc. to review your material.
- Use a word processing program. Word processing programs are designed to flag certain frequently confused words and can be helpful in helping a writer avoid misusing a word. However, word processing programs are not infallible and you still need to review your text to ensure it does not contain eggcorns.
- Use dictionary to determine how to correctly spell a word. Even when not looking up a particular word, occasionally perusing a dictionary can increase a reader's exposure to commonly and uncommonly used English words.
- Do a search engine search on a word or phrase for which you are unsure of the spelling. Most search engines will flag a misused or misspelled word or phrase and indicate the correct word or phrase by asking "do you mean .. .?" or informing you "showing the results for . . . "
- Albert L. Hurtado. “Misguided Diplomacy.” chapter 10. John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press; 2006. p. 130.
- Liberman M. “Egg Corns: Folk Etymology, Malapropism, Mondegreen, ???”. Language Log [website]. Posted on September 29, 2003. University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, PA. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/2003_09.html Accessed on 1/11/2022.
- Pullum G. “Phrases for Lazy Writers in Kit Form.” Language Log [website]. Posted on October 28, 2003. University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, PA. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/2003_10.html. Accessed on 1/11/2022.
- Reign A. “28 Dumb Tweets from People Who Can't Spell.” Collections: Meanwhile on Twitter [website]. Ranker: Los Angeles, CA. https://www.ranker.com/list/dumb-tweets-with-misspelled-words/ashley-reign. Accessed on 2/11/2022.
a In 1841, Samuel Green McMahan (c. 1810–1884) was part of the first American group to emigrate by wagon from Missouri to California, then owned by Mexico. The quote is from a letter he wrote on June 16, 1844, to his friend John Marsh, who also was involved in the westward expansion of America to California.
b Acorn bread has been made since antiquity throughout the world and continues to be made today. Ripe acorns from oak trees can be used to make acorn bread, but they require special processing to remove the high levels of tannins before they can be used for cooking. An alternative is to use acorn flour which is available from various vendors. Recipes for acorn bread can be found on many food sites on the internet.
c The words are from the first stanza of the Scottish ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray. American journalist Sylvia Wright (1917–1981) as a little girl had misheard the final line and long believed it ended “and Lady Mondegreen.” In 1954, she coined the term “mondegreen” to describe this type of mishearing.
d The Language Log blog remains active and can be accessed at https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll. Most posts are by contributors in the field of linguistics and related fields (e.g., cognitive science, sociology) and focus on language in the media and in popular culture.
© 2022 rpatrick