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The Ill-Advised Fight Against Malapropisms

Posted: 05/28/08 02:46 PM ET

Words By Mark Peters
Illustrations By Kim Scafuro

If you saw Blades of Glory last year, you may have chuckled when Will Ferrell used the word "mind-bottling," which he defined as "when your thoughts get so twisted up it's like they're trapped in a bottle." Or maybe you have a friend who likes to email about "jar-dropping" events in "lame man's terms."

"Mind-bottling," "jar-dropping," and "lame man's terms" are all eggcorns--a type of common and somewhat logical language goof named after a misspelling of "acorn." Eggcorns have garnered quite a following on the web, where they were first discussed on the popular linguistics blog Language Log in 2003. If you can answer yes to any of the following questions, then you may have to check your own nest for eggcorns: When you really care about a cause, do you try to strum up support? Are you a perfectionist who hates to do things half-hazardly? Do complex moral issues fill you with a paralyzing cognitive dissidence? And finally, are you tired of paying exuberant prices?

Linguists--like Language Log's Mark Liberman, Geoffrey K. Pullum, and Arnold Zwicky--insist that eggcorns aren't eggcorns unless they make at least a little bit of sense: "Strum up support" fits the bill because the meaning is so close to the correct "drum"--one musical metaphor is (almost) as logical as another. When we experience cognitive dissonance, it sometimes feels as if obstinate hemispheres of our brain are dissenting. "Half-hazard" is an apt, though unintentional, synonym for "haphazard," and though exorbitant prices cause little exuberance in shoppers, high prices and high moods are probably linked in the minds of the eggcorners.

As a language columnist, writing teacher, and rabid word nut, I hunt for eggcorns in all seasons but have no immunity to laying my own: Though I rarely have occasion to party hearty in my tighty whities, I did used to write "party hardy" and "tidy whities." (Sadly, I just had to revise that last sentence to put the eggcorns and the originals in the right spots, and I plan on quintuple-checking it before publication.)

The website Eggcorn Database has catalogued more than 500 of these errors, including "cease the opportunity" (seize the opportunity), "whoa is me" (woe is me), "girdle one's loins" (gird one's loins), "financial heartship" (financial hardship), "throngs of passion" (throes of passion), "mute point" (moot point), and "without further adieu" (without further ado). I think my favorite is "lack toast and tolerant," a dietary problem that makes lactose intolerance seem like a pleasant alternative to a barren, toastless existence. Giggles aside, the point of eggcorn-collecting isn't to make fun but to shed light: on the ways people--including you and I--make meaning out of stuff we know and stuff we've heard. As Pullum has written on Language Log, "it would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to material already known. One could say that people should look things up in dictionaries, but what should they look up? If you look up eggcorn, you'll find it isn't there. Now what?"

Eggcorns aren't necessarily errors at all. Instead, they are a type of language evolution, and they are being closely monitored by the people who make our dictionaries; even if you can't find your eggcorn there right now, you might soon. The seemingly impossible mission of the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, is to record the entire history of the English language. The OED uses something called the Oxford English Corpus to get a handle on current usage. The Corpus--a constantly evolving collection of texts including novels, newspapers, blogs, and chat rooms--contains 2 billion English words (though almost 100 million of those words are "the") and gives the OED the best possible look at how people are using language. It also shows how common some eggcorns are, beating out the original ("correct") terms in countless incidents. The adoption of these eggcorns indicates that eventually they won't be considered errors at all, and many are already accepted variants.

So next time you see an eggcorn, don't curse the heavens. Refrain from removing your eyeballs with a spork. Please don't start a blog about kids these days and how they're spilling Red Bull all over our nice dictionaries. These mind-bottling, jar-dropping mistakes show people are smart--not stupid--and this process of the masses' getting it wrong until it becomes right is common, ongoing, and unstoppable.

See ten eggcorns that became (or are becoming) accepted words at