Eggcorns are no yolk

A NEWSPAPER sub-editor’s lot is not always a happy one. Some of the boobs that slip into newspapers give readers a chuckle, at least. One of my favourites, spotted in a Johannesburg paper some years ago, was an obituary for a departed society doyenne. She was, said the report, a “grand old lay”.  What a difference a “d” makes  – or, in this case, a missing one!

Not a tribute the family could cut out and keep, I would say.

Of course, if it’s your job to catch such clangers, forget the chuckles – it’s enough to give you the chills.

These days, newsrooms are shrinking faster than cling-film held too close to a flame and reporters are under as much pressure as “subs” as we all battle the daily deadlines constantly threatening to whiz past.

Not letting a single boo-boo slip by is what I would (euphemistically) call challenging.

Many times the spectre of what we might have missed has given me the middle-of-the-night chills. It’s not too cool for the beloved, either, who often finds himself shaken out of his sleep by me suddenly sitting bolt-upright.

“What’s wrong,” he’ll ask with a start. “Nightmare? Burglars?”

Of course, he’s usually drifting back to sleep by the time I start to tell him.

As one of my newspaper’s “final eyes” – when I’m not busy writing my regular column, that is – eggcorns, as they’re called, are among my biggest worries.

They’re those pesky words that are correctly spelt but incorrectly used.

Among my proudest “saves” are restless driving (instead of reckless), and lentils (lintels) – a truly novel description for the horizontal supports across the top of a door or window.

There’s lots of towing (toeing) of lines going on, too – that’s when someone’s not flaunting (flouting) the rules! But my absolute favourite is pre-Madonna. Not, as you may think, some Old Testament person but a temperamental prima donna.

“Giggles aside,” says Mark Peters in Good Magazine,“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.

“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”, he explains.

As Language Log’s Geoffrey K Pullum, who’s credited with inventing the term, says: “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?”

Some of them make it into the lexicon in their own right – for eggcorns must always make a kind of sense. Piggy-back is one example although the original phrase, apparently, was “pick-a-back”.

Linguist Peters admits: “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.”

“Review mirrors” was one of my best bloops – but maybe it wasn’t so bad. After all, it’s what drivers do when they check them out, isn’t it?

Want more examples of eggcorns? Check out the Eggcorn Database (yes, there is such a thing!). – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column was first published in the Daily Dispatch)

Image by JD Hancock



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This entry was posted by stevieg on Saturday, November 5th, 2011 at 11:28 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Comment

  1. Oh, a grand old lay, indeed. How marvelous. Thank you for making me laugh with the sheer joy of it. Onward to Eggcorn Database.

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