Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

An Eggcorn with Your Mondegreen?

Geoffrey Pullum, the co-creator of the language website Language Log, sums up his site's popularity this way: "A: We like to have fun. B: We enjoy writing. And C: We're linguists." Over 40,000 people a week visit for a smart, witty, wry -- and, yes, fun -- take on how we use this English language of ours. Now Geoffrey and his collaborator Mark Liberman, both linguistics professors, have captured the flavor of their website in a new book called Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log. We called Geoffrey to talk about his work.

VT: Let me start with "eggcorn." You talk a lot about this on the Language Log.

Geoffrey: It's really quite interesting. The notion of eggcorn originated on Language Log and we've had scores of posts on eggcorns now. It's an entirely new topic in the study of linguistic error. It's really quite cute.

VT: How do you define it?

Geoffrey: It is a particular kind of error that results from having a wrong idea of what the parts of a word or the origins of words might be that's only revealed when you write it down. When you speak it people don't normally notice.

VT: Why do you spell it E-G-G-C-O-R-N?

Geoffrey: There are quite a lot of people, apparently, who think that's the word "acorn," A-C-O-R-N, those little egg-shaped things that oak trees drop. It just so happens that in many American dialects when you say an "eh" before a "gu" the sound is in fact much more like an "ai" before a "gu." That is, some people say "aiggs" instead of "eggs." This doesn't happen so much, by the way, in British English.

Most American dialects have a slight change in the vowel before a sound like "gu" so that the "ah" sounds like more "ai" in other words, too. If there were a word "eggcorn," for many American dialects it would be pronounced "aiggcorn." You wouldn't notice that when somebody says "acorn" like that, they're actually thinking of the first part as "egg."

It's virtually undetectable. But when they write it down it's revealed. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of eggcorns now used in English. It's a very interesting kind of error for this reason.

VT: Can you give us another example?

Geoffrey: A lot of people who have heard the phrase "wedding vows," thought that they were hearing "wedding vowels."

VT: Really?

Geoffrey: Yes, "vowel" as in "vowels and consonants." In fact, the Google figures for "wedding vowels" are quite high. My collaborator Mark figured out from our access logs that about 30 to 40 people per day were finding the Language Log site when they were doing Google or Yahoo searches for the phrases "wedding vowels," "renewing wedding vowels," or "alternative wedding vowels." They were looking for wordings that could be used for wedding services but instead were pointed to our Language Log posts on the subject.

VT: Wow.

Geoffrey: It's a classic eggcorn.

VT: What can you learn from this?

Geoffrey: What's interesting about eggcorns to me is this: Instead of showing ignorance these people show an ingenious theory, which just happens to be wrong, but is obviously the product of real intelligence. There's just no way for you to find out that a word that you've heard doesn't have the origin or morphological division into parts that you imaginatively think it has.

If you just happen to be wrong about it, you misheard very slightly or you've got the wrong impression of what the word is, then you're not going to find out until you've written the word down for the first time. Then it becomes clear. And what's become clear is not what you've done but, rather, that you had an ingenious theory of this word that was all your own.

VT: Amazing. You also talk about "mondegreen" on the Language Log.

Geoffrey: This is in the book as well. Somebody, not us, invented the term "mondegreen" for a mishearing of the lyrics of a song or the words of a poem. For example, there are quite a few people who think that when Percy Sledge famously sang "when a man loves a woman," it sounded like "when a man loves a walnut."

Once you've listened to him singing that song with this in mind it never goes away. It's "walnut" forever from then on.

VT: Oh my.

Geoffrey: There are hundreds of cases of people having very strange misunderstandings of lyrics because on the recording it doesn't sound quite like it should. The term "mondegreen" comes from a rather lovely one in a folk song, which I think goes "and they killed the Lord of Aaron and they laid him on the green."

When this is sung, "they laid him on the green" sounds like the "Lady Mondegreen." Someone who heard this must have thought it was really unfair that they should have killed his wife as well. But why did she have a different name? Who is the Lady Mondegreen?

VT: Yes, I see.

Geoffrey: You really need a copy of the book in front of you.

VT: There seems to be a lot of misunderstandings in our language.

Geoffrey: Misunderstandings of things that are spoken are all part of the grist of our mill. I have a wonderful story in the book that a friend of mine in Santa Cruz, California, told me. "Get Your Boyfriend to Move it: A Speech Perception Story," it's called. I'll give you a very brief summary.

VT: Please.

Geoffrey: A woman living near the beach in Santa Cruz County called the animal rescue service to explain there was a dead sea lion under her house. She was astonished to find that these people weren't in the slightest bit interested. The person on the phone said, "just get your boyfriend to move it."

She said that she didn't happen to have a boyfriend at the moment. The person on the phone said, well, all the woman had to do is put it in a cardboard box and dispose of it. The woman said, a cardboard box? That thing probably weighs eight hundred pounds. It would have to be like a refrigerator carton. Anyway, she couldn't possibly move it herself. Then the voice at the other end said... eight hundred pounds?

Slowly comprehension dawned when the caller said, "yes it's a full grown sea lion and it's dead. It's absolutely enormous." The person at the animal rescue answered, "oh I thought you said a 'dead feline.'"

VT: Fascinating.

Geoffrey: What I like is that it's "animal rescue service talk" referring to cats as "felines." They used a technical term when it wasn't necessary.

VT: That's right. They have their own lingo.

Geoffrey: Nobody who had a dead cat under their house would call it anything other than "a dead cat." This person actually thought, wrongly, that the caller would refer to it as a "feline" just because people in their business do. I thought it was lovely.

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