Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com.
As a child, I recited the words of the Lord’s Prayer exactly as I heard them. “Our Father who art in heaven, how Lord be thy name?” How, Lord. “How” sounded like a solemn word of greeting, like what the Indians on TV said when they met up with the cowboys. It made sense that you wouldn’t say an ordinary, informal “hi” to the Lord, and the word “hallowed” wasn’t yet in my vocabulary. Just recently, I learned the linguistic term for my mistake. I had committed an “eggcorn.”
There’s a science to auditory perception. The sound waves enter the ear and, through a complex process of neural decoding, the brain translates those waves into meaning. Given the many peculiar idiosyncrasies of English, it’s a miracle we can communicate at all. The language is a hodgepodge of homophones (tale, tail), paronyms (accept, except), and oronyms (I scream, ice cream). Small wonder there’s an occasional bit of slippage betwixt the ear and the brain.
Before 2003, there wasn’t a name for my blooper. An article on the website Language Log about a woman who misheard the word “acorn” inspired the new coinage. “From little eggcorns mighty oaks do grow.” And from little misunderstandings, an entire database does grow. If you’d like to go eggcorn hunting, you can find more than 600 examples at http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/
Linguists define an eggcorn as a substitution of a misheard word for the correct word. The substitution is perfectly logical, but it alters the original meaning, sometimes shockingly. My favorite eggcorn is a twist on the idiom “raked over the coals.” Recounting the story of a bad day at the office, a friend told me that she’d been “raped over the coals.” The alteration added a whole new dimension of horror. I figured it probably hadn’t happened, but she worked for lawyers. It wasn’t impossible.
The difference between an eggcorn and a malapropism is plausibility. Malapropisms make no sense at all. Mrs. Malaprop, a fictional character in a 1775 play by Richard Sheridan, was forever inserting a nonsensical, out-of-context word in place of the similarly sounding correct word. Lots of writers have used this literary device for comedic effect, including one of my favorite authors, Peter De Vries. “I’ve been married seventeen years,” declares one of his characters, “and never had an organism.” Another fictional character with a propensity for malapropisms was Miss Emily Litella, portrayed by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live. She opposed the “deaf penalty” and the campaign to “make Puerto Rico a steak.”
Malapropisms are constantly creeping into political discourse. I’m particularly fond of former Chicago Mayor Daley’s reference to “Alcoholics Unanimous.” And one cannot misunderestimate the contributions of George W. Bush, a man who recognized “the fallacy of humans.” So prolific a malapropist was he that Bushism has entered the lexicon as a synonym for semantic and linguistic flubs. Wikipedia cites numerous examples of Bushisms, including his promise to “restore chaos and order” and “make the pie higher.” Impressively muddleheaded, although as Australia’s Tony Abbott reminds us, “No one is the suppository of all wisdom.”
Misunderstood song lyrics are called mondegreens, a word derived from an old Scottish ballad. “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray and laid him on the green.” What the writer Sylvia Wright heard was, “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Such misinterpretations occur most often with strings of words and syllables that can be logically parsed in several ways. Credence Clearwater gave us a memorable mondegreen in their hit “Bad Moon Rising.” Was that last line “There’s a bad moon on the rise” or “There’s a bathroom on the right”?
We’ve all sung our share of mondegreens, but it’s not always our ears to blame. Some singers mangle their lyrics beyond even the FBI’s ability to decipher them. Trained investigators listened to “Louis, Louis” for over two years and couldn’t decipher a single intelligible word. Belting out mondegreens in the shower is not as embarrassing as perpetrating a malapropism in public. As for eggcorns, with a new English word being coined every ninety-eight minutes, we’re bound to stumble sooner or later. That’s no reason to curl up in the feeble position or get your dandruff up. Eggcorns are pearls of achievement – the imaginative translation of a garbled transmission into something rational and interesting.
A written eggcorn is a hearse of a different color. No respectable writer wants to create an eggcorn that will live under her byline for all eternity, regardless how imaginative or interesting. For this reason, we have learned NEVER to rely on Spell Check. We remain skeptical of our brilliant phraseology and fly to the dictionary if we have the teensiest suspicion about definition or usage. The unintentional publication of eggcorns can and must be nipped in the butt.