Even though my mantra is “Words Matter”, I’m constantly learning new things about language.
Last week I received an email which contained the phrase “for all intensive purposes”. Of course, the correct phrase is the similar-sounding “for all intents and purposes.” The mistake struck me as both amusing and intriguing, so I tweeted that it might be the inspiration for a future blog.
Jim Gardner commented that this confusion might be “the most common mondegreen in English after moot/mute”.
If you’re like me and don’t know what a mondegreen is, here’s the definition:
A misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song.
I’m constantly mishearing song lyrics. One of my favorites comes from the Bob Marley/Eric Clapton song “I Shot the Sheriff”. For years, I thought the refrain was:
I shot the Sheriff, but I didn’t shoot him dead you see.
The actual lyric is “I shot the Sheriff, but I didn’t shoot the deputy”. Sounds similar, doesn’t it?
However, the email wasn’t a song; so it doesn’t strictly fit the definition of mondegreen. Instead, these language confusions are called eggcorns, a term coined in 2003 by the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Lieberman. As discussed in the fantastic Language Log, the name came about when someone wrote eggcorn instead of acorn.
Here are 10 of my favorite eggcorns, with the correct phrase in parentheses:
- old-timer’s disease (Alzheimer’s disease)
- nip it in the butt (nip it in the bud)
- to speak one’s peace (to speak one’s piece)
- tow the line (toe the line)
- wreckless driving (reckless driving)
- peaked my curiosity (piqued my curiosity)
- lazy fair (laissez faire)
- bonified (bona fide)
- give your two sense worth (give your two cents’ worth)
- a tough road to hoe (tough row to hoe)
There are 600 more of these in the Eggcorn Database. Spend some time browsing the list and you’ll never have to ask “What’s an eggcorn?”
Use the comment section to let me know what your favorite eggcorns are.