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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Thursday December 7th 2006, 10:00 AM
Comment by: CodePoet42 (TN)
This is a fascinating article and I will definitely check out the Language Log. The "eggcorn" and "wedding vowels" examples remind me of a funny instance when I was teaching an argumentative writing class at the University of Texas at Arlington. One of my students turned in a paper on the evils of alcoholism that included the line "My cousin once drank himself into a Bolivian."

Fortunately I got all my laughing out of the way in the coffee shop where I was grading the papers. The next day I explained that the phrase is "drank himself into oblivion." I still consider this one of the funniest moments in my paper-grading history.
Sunday December 10th 2006, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Kate M.
While planting Yews in our yard (a small evergreen shrub) my sister thought we were planting "used" bushes, and wanted to know where we were able to find them. ;-) We'll definitely enjoy the language log. Thanks
Monday December 11th 2006, 4:40 AM
Comment by: Carol B.
Here's one:
A few years ago my young grandson, when asked what he wanted to order for lunch at a Mexican restaurant, said "I'll have a case of ideas" Now our whole family has replaced quesadilla with "case of ideas."
Thursday January 4th 2007, 1:21 AM
Comment by: Shannon Forbes (Casper, WY)
I don't know what category this might fall in, if at any. We had an iceman when I was very young - back in the late 40s - and for YEARS, I thought our iceman's name was "Fifty." (Gives away my age, huh?)
Mom used to raise the window and yell "fifty!" whenever she heard his truck outside - meaning 50 puonds of ice, of course.
I found out much later that his name was Mr. MacGregor. He was nice to us kids, and he always ANSWERED to "Fifty."

One of my mondegreens is from that song where they actually say, "Reach out in the darkness" during the chorus. I could've sworn it was "Freak out in the garden." Can't remember the name of the song right now.

And, of course, there's always ALL the words to "Louie, Louie."
Wednesday July 25th 2007, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Then of course there is the premise of the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffmann film Rainman, which is how the Cruise character had heard and understood the name of his older brother Raymond.

But eggcorns happen in other languages too. One of my favorite stories (I am Icelandic, by the way) is from a remedial English class that I taught a few years ago. It was a group of 16-year-olds, and I was doing a lesson in what the Germans would call "Landeskunde". I was going into the concept of leaving tips in restaurants and for other services, a practice which is unknown in Iceland, and I translated the word into Icelandic, which is "þjórfé" or, in English transliteration "thyorfye", which is based on an archaic word, known only to fairly well-read people, meaning to drink alcoholic beverages. Actually, it means exactly the same thing as the German "Trinkgeld".

So anyway, the pupil I was explaining this to had never before heard the word, but another spoke up and said "Þjórfé? I always thought it was "Þjóðfé", and yet another chimed in with "And I always thought it was "þjóffé!" The funny thing was that both of these misunderstandings are quite brilliant if you don't know the word "þjóra", to drink alcohol, because "þjóð" means "folk" and "þjóf-" means "thief"! I thought privately that the second eggcorn was a much better description of what a tip often is, when the service is not very good!
Monday January 7th 2008, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Carol H.
A number of years ago when we were living in Florida for a short period we were taking a trip from Lakeland to Miami. As small children will do my son kept asking where are we going and are we there yet. After getting frustrated with answering to Miami and no we are not there yet every five minute question I forbid him to ask again. After a few minutes this small voice came from the back set seat with the question of the year. "Mom what is Your Ami's Name?"
Carol Hawn
Friday February 1st 2008, 8:54 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Just yesterday my wonderful boss, who loves to say "Let me just talk out loud for a minute" when he wants to ponder something, referred to a project as not having "passed mustard." Now that I know about eggcorns, I will try to write these down. As to the pronounciation of "aiggs" instead of "eggs," my friend Meg said that after she moved West, when she gave her name upon introduction, everyone thought she was saying "Maid" and wondered why that would be her name...
Thursday February 7th 2008, 8:30 PM
Comment by: Abigail W.
I was a student at Mount Allison, studying English Lit many years ago, and we all got a great chuckle out of the name of one of our sister English lit clubs. It was at (I believe) the University of N.B., and instead of having a boring name like the English Literature Society" it was called the Albert Ross society, in honour of the student who had written a paper describing an important character in The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, by the name of "Albert Ross"!!!! :) I will forever get a chuckle out of this ...

Thank you for this lovely article, I will look forward to checking out the Language Log, being a lover of words and plays on words.

Abigail Whitney
Thursday February 28th 2008, 2:44 AM
Comment by: ruchika C.
as children, my sister and i often danced vigourously to a song we thought was called 'gimme back my chewingum'. it was years later that i discovered it was "tell me I'm not dreaming" by Germaine Jackson! a particular style of singing combined with an unfamiliarity with the American accent gave us years of giggling at our silliness. its a pretty common phenomenon in India actually!

people from different parts of India speak english with VERY different accents, so this gives us many many eggcorns (so good to have a word for it!), some of which might be inappropriate to mention!
Thursday February 28th 2008, 10:00 PM
Comment by: Sandra C.
I had always wondered as a child singing the Star Spangled Banner what a dawnzerly light was. When I was eleven years old I finally asked someone, and now upon singing the song I always smile as I separate in speech the syllables "dawn's early light"...
Friday February 29th 2008, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Bob K.
Well, it involves French so may not qualify. I heard this lovely song about "La viande rose" (pink meat) and couldn't figure why pink meat was so lovingly acclaimed. Eventually I came to realize it was "La Vie en Rose" (the good life) and get a good laugh when I recall my confusion.
Thursday May 1st 2008, 11:23 AM
Comment by: gopal K.
I have heard a joke by a professor of mine. Once a group of research scholars from Bihar in India went on a jaunt to London. They were all lustily welcomed by the hosts. Before they were about to get into the bus, the young man in charge of hospitality noticed a young lady lounging all alone and lost in thought. He rushed up to her and apologised for his faux pas. The lady replied with a disinterested smile: 'But I am not so impotent*.'

Sorry to explain the joke, but what she really meant was I am not so important !!
Saturday May 3rd 2008, 4:16 AM
Comment by: George W.
A young Mexican kid by the name of Jose won a spelling contest in school and the prize was a trip to NY to see a baseball game. He was seated in dead center field under the flag. When he returned home, he was asked if he enjoyed the game. He said yes, the people were so polite. When the game started everyone stood up and looked at him, and sang "Jose can you see?"
Sunday November 21st 2010, 5:43 AM
Comment by: colleen B. (München Germany)
The Christian hymn proclaims: 'Gladly the cross I'd bear', which in our family has become firmly entrenched as 'Gladly, the cross-eyed bear'.
Saturday December 28th 2013, 3:09 PM
Comment by: marcia F. (oklahoma city, OK)
My mother was a singer so our family had music playing all the time. I listened to show tunes hours on end. The song 'Stranger in Paradise' has the phrase, "Somewhere in space I hang suspended" but I heard, "somewhere in space I hang suspenders." And, yes, I wondered why on earth one would want to do that and why on earth would one mention it in the song? Well, I was singing the song one day and my mother laughed hysterically at this. She is one of the main reasons that I love mondegreens so very much.
Tuesday July 16th 2019, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
By the way, the "folk song" that Geoffrey is speaking of is a Child ballad from the 17th century called The Bonny Earl of Moray. Here is the verse that inspired the term Mondegreen:
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl o' Moray
And layd him on the green.

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