'Eggcorns': The Gaffes That Spread Like Wildflowers

May 30, 2015
Originally published on June 1, 2015 1:01 am

Please pause if you're about to tell us our headline should say "spread like wildfire."

We intentionally slipped an eggcorn into that line — something we couldn't have done a week ago because, frankly, we'd never heard of eggcorns.

But thanks to Merriam-Webster, which included eggcorn among the more than 1,700 words added to its dictionary this past week, we learned that it is:

"A word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase."

Some examples:

"Spread like wildflowers" is an eggcorn when used instead of "spread like wildfire."

"Coldslaw" is an eggcorn if you meant "coleslaw."

"Self phone" is an eggcorn of "cellphone."

You get the idea.

"Eggcorn" itself is an eggcorn. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum is credited with coming up the word, which is the way some people say "acorn."

The difference between an eggcorn and a malapropism is that the latter is a "ludicrous misuse of words," as Webster's New World College Dictionary says, while the former makes some sense in a slightly offbeat way. Consider these eggcorns:

"Never regions" instead of "nether regions."

"Come to not" instead of "come to naught."

"Curtsey call" instead of "courtesy call."

There is a case to be made that they are "seemingly logical or plausible."

One of the more famous examples of a malapropism in the past half century is then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's statement in 1968 that "the policeman isn't there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

Emily Brewster, a Merriam-Webster associate editor, tells us in an email that the criteria for inclusion in the dictionary "are the same for all terms: substantial use in a variety of sources over an extended period of time. Each of those is intentionally vague. We're a bit stricter, for example, about what qualifies as 'substantial use' for slang words because they tend to come and go, and also may take a while to settle into a meaning. ... Twelve years for a word like 'eggcorn' isn't atypical."

"Coldslaw" is among her favorite eggcorns. So is getting "a new leash on life"

During the latest "Word Matters" conversation on Weekend Edition, we talk about eggcorns and issue this challenge to the NPR audience: Send us some of your favorites. Email wordmatters@npr.org, share them in this post's comments thread or tweet them to #wordmatters.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Big news in the world of words this week - updates to the AP style guide and the words in Merriam-Webster. We're joined now by Mark Memmott, NPR senior editor for Standards & Practices. Mark, thanks so much for being back with us.

MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Let's start with the AP style guide - maybe I should say the Associated Press style guide because we're going to be talking about abbreviations. Those sometimes present decisions, right? Do we always need the say Internal Revenue Service on first reference? Doesn't everybody kind of know the UN or FBI by its initials, or NPR for that matter? So AP has now ruled about BLT.

MEMMOTT: They have. We can say BLT on first reference. Now I should start out by saying that NPR - we have our own standards and styles, but we usually are in line with AP's. In this case, I found a reference going back, at least to 2002 by someone named Scott Simon...

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, no.

MEMMOTT: ...Who referred to a BLT as a BLT without saying bacon, lettuce and tomato.

SIMON: I bring this up though because, as I don't have to tell you of all people, Mark, there are initials that have entered everyday language because they're abbreviations for profanities.

MEMMOTT: I'm going to have to be very careful in this conversation, Scott. And I want to say right off the bat, NPR has not changed its policy on potentially offensive words, phrases or abbreviations. The one I'm about to use is one you will not hear us say very often, so here goes. This week's news is that WTF is now in Merriam-Webster's dictionary. And the AP says it's now OK to use that abbreviation in stories, quote, "if necessary to convey a meaning or mood."

SIMON: It's not the world trade form, let's put it that way.

MEMMOTT: And it's not what's the fuss? No. The dictionary definition now is express or describe outrage, surprise, recklessness, confusion or bemusement.

English is a living language, and we've seen this kind of abbreviation transformation before, much as snafu after World War II. That abbreviation turned into a word.

SIMON: I know I've used that on the air.

MEMMOTT: Yes you have. And we have - we've used it on our website, we've used it in headlines. It's been common usage now for decades. So common that it was used by the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest just this month when he was discussing trade talks.

SIMON: But it does trace back to an expression in the military.

MEMMOTT: It does, and it had an obscenity in it in the beginning.

SIMON: Yeah. Moving on to Merriam-Webster. They've added 1,700 new words. I can't begin to keep up with that, but I do want to ask you about this one in particular - eggcorn?

MEMMOTT: Eggcorn. Maybe we should spell it. E-G-G-C-O-R-N. It's defined as a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakingly used in what seems like a logical or plausible way for another word or phrase. It's been around since about 2003. It's a play on how some people say the word acorn, and a linguist thought, well, it makes a little bit of sense. An acorn looks kind of like an egg. Let's come up with a word for another word or phrase when it's reshaped but kind of makes a little bit of sense if you think about it. So here's a classic one - some people will say all intensive purposes when they mean all intents and purposes.

There's a website I found called the Eggcorn Database - has more than 600 of these. Some of my favorites include self-phone.

SIMON: (Laughter). That's perfect, actually.

MEMMOTT: That is actually perfect. Holiday's sauce.

SIMON: As opposed to hollandaise. Right, yeah.

MEMMOTT: And never regions instead of nether regions.

SIMON: (Laughter). I don't - I mean, you're the only one who can say nether regions on the air. Mark Memmott, NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. You can send him your favorite eggcorns, make up new ones at Word Matters at npr.org. Mark, thanks so much for being with us.

MEMMOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.