A celebration of eggcorns and mondegreens

April 6, 2021 by Alison Tunley

Get a Free Quote

Our Accreditations

  • ATA Logo
  • ATC Logo
  • BSI 9001 Logo
  • BSI 9001 Logo
  • DIN EN 15038 Logo

Recent Updates

Culture-bound syndromes and how language shapes illness

In her book Sleeping Beauties, neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan explores the phenomenon of culture-bound illnesses around the world. The conditions she is interested in are psychosomatic disorders which arise due to a complex interaction between the mind and body, but… Read More

A celebration of eggcorns and mondegreens

Mishearings are a common source of amusement to anyone with young children. We have friends who still refer to “school insect days” rather than INSET (in-service training) days, and who eagerly go “trickle treating” rather than trick-or-treating. These kinds of idiosyncratic substitutions are referred to as “eggcorns”, which is itself an example of the genre, where the “a” in acorn is substituted by egg.

Plausibility is key to the eggcorn genre and sometimes a misinterpretation becomes so widespread, the misheard version supplants the original. So, in English you may find damp squid replacing damp squib, where squib originally referred to a small, unimpressive firework rather than a soggy species of cephalopod. Another good example is “dull as dishwater” which now seems to be more widespread than the original “dull as ditchwater”. Crucially, the replacement here works just as well as the original in conveying the intended meaning.

When this kind of linguistic evolution is in progress, it’s a chance for the language pedant to come into their own. I’ve admitted here before my own futile efforts to maintain the phrase champing at the bit in the face of what is now an almost comprehensive switch to chomping at the bit. Sometimes it’s important to know when you are defeated, but this doesn’t stop me shouting at the radio every time it happens.

These slips of the ear are most likely to affect slightly archaic, unusual lexical items. Your average English speaker is unlikely to be familiar with squibs or champing. Once you’ve become aware of these misinterpretations, you will start spotting them all over the place. There’s even an online eggcorn forum where you can truly embrace “eggcornology” and contribute examples to their database. Lexicographer Susie Dent also recently listed some of her favourites, including the chuckle-inducing “going at it hammer and thongs” (see sources).

There is a subset of eggcorns called mondegreens, which are usually misheard phrases, lyrics, or songs where the meaning also changes. The name is derived from a description of this phenomenon by Scottish author Sylvia Write in 1954, who recalled misinterpreting a line from a recited verse. The original goes “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green” but Write misheard this as “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.”

Song lyrics are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, perhaps because singing alters the rhythmic cues that help listeners accurately decode the speech signal and because poetic verse often disrupts conventional word order. So, the line “Gladly the cross I’d bear” in the hymn “Keep thou my way” becomes distorted into “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”. There is even a children’s book called “Olive, the other reindeer” celebrating the mondegreen of the line “all of the other reindeer” from the well-known Christmas song.





Share This Post


Add Comment

Andreea Mohan

Taylor Wessing LLP

We are very pleased with the services provided by Rosetta Translations. They always send very prompt responses, transparent prices and deliver their work product at the highest standards.

More Testimonials

Jackie Brook, Sr Product Manager

American Express

Thank you very much for your prompt and efficient service.

More Testimonials

Conor McLarnon

Maximus Crushing and Screening

I have translated multiple projects with Rosetta now and I cannot emphasise how great the service they provide is; quality, turnaround time and pricing is the best I have found yet. The qualities of translations we receive are of the highest standard and communication from the start of a project to the end is consistent.

For a company looking into translations, I would highly recommend Rosetta as first pick, as the support and service they provide is first class.

More Testimonials

Get a Free Quote

© 2024 All Rights Reserved
Rosetta Translation, 133 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QA · 0207 248 2905