If you’ve been signalled out by friends for saying ‘when all is set and done’, you’re not alone – linguists even have a word for it
Learning your mother tongue might seem effortless, but doesn’t always go without a hitch. In particular, you may hear certain sets of words and break them down wrongly in your head. So long as your version is plausible, sounds the same, and you’re not asked to write it down, the error can persist for years. I was in sixth form when I realised my version of “as opposed to” wasn’t widely shared. I thought it was “as a pose to”, which in my head implied some kind of challenge to an existing idea, like posing a question.
I was lucky enough not to have my mistake published in the most famous newspaper in the world. Last week New York Times columnistFrank Bruni wrote on the midterm elections. He said “the Congress we’re about to get will be its [predecessor’s] spit and image: familiar faces, timeworn histrionics, unending paralysis.”
Spit and image? No, Frank it’s “spitting image”! How embarrassing. Where had the Times copyeditors been when he needed them? Did Bruni just drop an eggcorn in America’s journal of record?
The eggcorn is a concept that crystallised on the pages of Language Log, where, back in 2003, Mark Liberman asked for a name to describe a the phenomenon represented by a woman writing “egg corns” instead of “acorns”. The linguists just decided to go with eggcorn, after the canonical example.
Inspired by this new definition, some other Language Loggers decided to set up the “eggcorn database”, which is a brilliant and often hilarious compendium of mortification. The sources of each example are carefully recorded. “There is no deal in place but when all is set and done, something is expected to happen after the Academy Awards” noted Deadline Hollywood, on 23 January 2011. “But it could give the neocons a new leash on life,” wrote Andrew Sullivan on 9 July, 2007. On 17 March 2009 Forbes.com let slip the following sentence: “some of the individuals signaled out for retention may not be the right ones” and on 4 December that year a commenter on nytimes.com argued that “the National Organisation for Women and others have nothing to offer the average Jane and in consequence, have allowed Sarah Palin and her elk to define women’s issues.” I think we can all agree that the largest species deer in the world has no place setting the parameters for these kinds of debate.
Some other examples:
- A mute point (for moot point)
- Ad homonym (ad hominem)
- Chickens come home to roast (to roost)
- Dough-eyed (doe-eyed)
- Far-gone conclusion (foregone conclusion)
- Fast majority (vast majority)
- Holidays sauce (Hollandaise sauce)
- Internally grateful (eternally grateful)
- Like a bowl in a china shop (like a bull in a china shop)
- Ontray (entrée)
- Social leopard (social leper)
- Social morays (social mores)
- Skimp milk (skimmed milk)
- Youthamism (euphemism)
- Damp squid (damp squib)
Liberman makes some interesting points about how eggcorns differ from both “folk etymologies” – which I’ve touched on before – and malapropisms. They’re not folk etymologies, he argues, “because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community” – though very common ones could certainly become part of the language. They’re not malapropisms either, “because ‘egg corn’ and ‘acorn’ are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like ‘allegory’ for ‘alligator,’ ‘oracular’ for ‘vernacular’ and ‘fortuitous’ for ‘fortunate’ are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content)”. No, eggcorns sound almost identical to the intended form, and, crucially, are plausible as alternative analyses of them.
Incidentally, the feeling of finally recognising one’s eggcorn is beautifully rendered by Jeanette Winterson:
I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a “damp squid”, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?
Anyway, back to Bruni. As Language Log points out, he didn’t drop (lay?) an eggcorn at all. In fact, “spit and image” is the older version of the expression. Both may be alterations of an earlier form, “spitten image”. But the paper has let some eggcorns through in the past – “Eyes rimming with tears” and “strum up support”, to name but two. It’s a good job that kind of thing never happens in the Guardian.