July 26, 2022 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
A previous blog revelled in the linguistic joy to be found in eggcorns and mondegreens, which are misheard homophones that can become cemented in standard speech, sometimes even displacing the original correct form. A classic example is “dull as dishwater” rather than ditch water. In written documents, a similar phenomenon can be found where homophones are confused, and the incorrect form is selected. There are endless examples, some of which are highly entertaining. A hat tip to Rosetta founder Eric Fixmer for collecting the following gems: “He showed his metal” (mettle), “pedalling dangerous ideas” (peddling), “in sink with the mainstream” (in sync). Eric neatly describes these slip-ups as “illiterate first cousins of the mondegreen”. They are, in essence, typographic mondegreens.
As reflected in the title to this post, linguists generally refer to these mistakes simply as homophone errors. It seems a shame they lack a punchy name of their own like the eggcorn or mondegreen. Perhaps they are just too common to warrant such an honour. At any rate, they are every proof-reader’s nightmare. There is no squiggly red line to help you spot them, and how is your spellchecker supposed to know that you meant pause and not paws? Every translator will be familiar with that moment of horror when you catch a homophone spelling error lurking in a text you were about to submit to the client. You might even find you have a weakness for producing particular errors. I seem to be partial to writing that something “plays an important roll” instead of role and I have only just trained myself to get discreet/discrete applied correctly without resorting to a dictionary.
But if a homophone spelling error is to achieve the status of typographic mondegreens I think it needs to be more entertaining than these run-of-the-mill substitutions. The examples we began with have something of the malaphor about them. Rather than blending two idioms with nonsensical results (“we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”), these are homophone confusions that result in an outlandish or farcical scenario. The resulting amusement can only be appreciated in written form, and the mix-up needs to conjure a sufficiently surreal image to bring a smile to the reader’s face. Illustrator Bruce Worden produced the Homophones, Weakly blog, which captured these kinds of spelling glitches in black and white minimalistic images, culminating in the book Homophones Visualized.
Nothing beats finding one of these homophonic mishaps out in the wild, having slipped past the prowling attention of the copy editor. So, “without further adieu” (arguably more of an eggcorn than a homophone error), I have resolved to start my own collection of these satisfying typographic mondegreens.
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