Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Sounds Like...: All the Ways We Misspeak and Write

For two weeks we highlighted phrases that are written from what people hear, sometimes with amusing results. A reader asked: "Aren't all those [examples] mondegreens, like 'very close veins' when 'varicose veins' is meant?"

Yes and know.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a mondegreen as "a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung." It's best used when what was misheard is poetry, song, or other literary/artistic endeavor.

Some of the rest of such misheard phrases could be "eggcorns," or "malaprops," or "spoonerisms." All four of these are incorrect renderings of something heard or spoken. The differences can be subtle, and no one highlights those differences better than Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty. She writes:

  • Spoonerisms are what you get when a speaker mixes up sounds, making phrases such as better Nate than lever.
  • Mondegreens are what you get when listeners mishear words; for example when people think the song lyrics are Sweet dreams are made of cheese instead of Sweet dreams are made of this.
  • Eggcorns are what you get when people swap homophones in phrases, such as spelling hear, hear H-E-R-E instead of H-E-A-R.
  • Malapropisms are what you get when someone substitutes a similar-sounding word for another, such as He's the pineapple of politeness instead of He's the pinnacle of politeness.

The oldest of these is "malaprop." A 1775 play introduced a character, Mrs. Malaprop, who often mixed up words in long phrases (as in the "pinnacle/pineapple" example above). The first etymological use of "malaprop" was in 1814, The Oxford English Dictionary says, and it was "verbed" in 1959 (though you might be accused of misapropping a word if you malaprop it).

Mondegreen, as we've said, appears to have been coined in 1954, when a writer recounted her mishearing of an old ballad. But it didn't make it into most dictionaries until much later.

The word "eggcorn" traces to 1844, according to the OED, when people miswrote "acorn." But its etymological use goes only to 2003, when a discussion on the venerable Language Log suggested its use. An "eggcorn" phrase usually has some logic to support it, as in "right of passage" instead of "rite of passage." "Eggcorn" still does not appear in Merriam-Webster, though it is in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

A "spoonerism" is the only one of the four phenomena where new words can be formed, by transposing syllables of others, as in "I had tee many martoonis." More often, the transposition results in real words used nonsensically or humorously ("troy bout scoop" instead of "boy scout troop"). Named for the Rev. William Archibald Spooner, who died in 1930 and was famously prone to tripping over his own tongue, "spoonerisms" can be found in colloquial use as far back as 1885, The OED says, though their first documented use was in 1900. Some "spoonerisms" have become words themselves, as "bass-ackwards" did in 1930 (though to be fair, that may have been a deliberate alteration to avoid having one's mouth washed out with soap).

You'll notice that in some of those, the speaker has misheard something, while in others, the speaker is misspeaking. But they can all be miswritten as well. When they are, let's call them "malaspoondecorns."

If you're caught in any of these, you can always fall back on Yogi Berra, and claim "I really didn't say everything I said."

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.