April 6, 2021 by Alison Tunley
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In his book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver talks about the proliferation of information following the invention and history of the printing press and the potential for misinformation and errors. One example he picks out is a… Read More
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.
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