Mighty Irks From Little Eggcorns Grow

By Elaine Viets

Did you ever mistake the word “acorn” for “eggcorn”?
Me, either. But apparently enough people mistakenly heard eggcorn instead of acorn, and that was enough to name a whole category of mistakes. Mistakes that can bedevil writers.

The Christian Science Monitor calls an eggcorn “a slip of the ear . . . the written expression of a plausible mishearing of a standard term. ‘For all intents and purposes,’ for example, is a set phrase—inherently redundant, perhaps, but it’s the idiom. It gets misheard though as ‘for all intensive purposes,’ and sometimes appears that way in print.”

Little eggcorns are mighty big traps for writers. There’s even a site devoted to eggcorns, called the Eggcorn Database (eggcorns.lascribe.net). You can while away many hours checking out eggcorns. At least, I did. I was surprised by the number of experienced writers who stumbled over eggcorns.

Here’s how Deadline Hollywood mangled when all is said and done:
“There is no deal in place but when all is set and done, something is expected to happen after the Academy Awards . . . ”

The Associated Press ran afoul of another phrase, but we should chalk it up to deadline pressure:
“‘Chock it up to just another amateur exhibition of a lack of administrative ability,’ said Georgia pollster Claibourne Darden.”

Even the great Ansel Adams made a mishmash of criticism in this letter: “‘Photography in the Fine Arts’ was a distressing mixmash.”

Some eggcorns make more sense than the correct word:

“Extreme Court” for “Supreme Court,”
“Close-a-phobia” for “claustrophobia,”
“Hearbuds” for “earbuds.”

I like the eggcorn “ostenspacious” instead of “ostentatious,” especially if it’s a big house.
“Skyscratcher” is more accurate than “skyscraper.”
Other eggcorns make writers look just plain dumb.
I wince when I read that someone who moved away from their country is an “ex-patriot.”
How about claiming someone “passed mustard” instead of “passed muster”?
“Physical policy” instead of “fiscal policy” is downright embarrassing.
Ditto for calling ambitious persons “real goal-getters” when they’re “real go-getters.”

How many books have you seen where someone has to “tow the line” instead of “toe the line”?
Here are a few more:

“cold slaw” for “cole slaw”
“old timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s Disease”
“chesterdraws” for “chest of drawers”
“wipe board” for “whiteboard”
“curve your enthusiasm” for “curb your enthusiasm”
“A doggie-dog world” sounds much nicer than “a dog-eat-dog world.”
Anyone who’s ever been wiped out at a poker game knows a “card shark” is more accurate than a “card sharp.”

There is one surprising eggcorn that almost everyone gets wrong. Calling an earthquake a “tremblor.” The correct word for an earthquake is . . .
No R after that T.

A temblor is an earthquake.
There’s no such word as tremblor, according to Merriam-Webster. And a trembler is someone who shivers or shakes.
Some lesser dictionaries allow “tremblor” as an informal term for earthquake. But the big names, like Webster, remain unshaken.
Beware the eggcorn – a reminder that words should never be taken for granite.
Name your favorite eggcorns.
Break out the champagne! I have a contract for two more Angela Richman mysteries. Pre-order Death Grip, Angela # 5 now.








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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

51 thoughts on “Mighty Irks From Little Eggcorns Grow

  1. I have often heard, and occasionally read, “Nip it in the bud,” as, you may have guessed it already, “Nip it in the butt…” (talk about doggy-dog… ? )

  2. Never heard of “eggcorn.” New Englanders would pounce all over the mistake on the first utterance. We adore our mighty oaks.

    One that always makes me giggle is: “See the forest through the trees.”

    I once had a proofreader change “Far be it from me” to “Far be for me” which is incorrect, but the mis-wording is a common mistake.

    • Far be it for me to diss publisher’s proofreaders — they’ve saved my bacon many times. But I had one take the apostrophe out of Jack Daniel’s — an offense to any liquor lover.

      • Writers are always at the mercy of idiot editors and proofreaders. One “editor” at Silhouette/Harlequin decided that “blonde” was only an adjective, and “blond” was only a noun. I brought up that error to a friend who wrote for them, and the “editor” had changed the rule despite what the dictionary said. Such utter arrogance and power-tripping.

      • I’m having a real fight with an editor over the name of my character’s fictional hometown of Warner’s Crossing, Oklahoma. She goes nuts over Warner’s Crossing, insisting that it would be Warners Crossing. (There is an entire federal government entity, The United States Board on Geographic Names, that rares back its precious little head and fights to keep names uniform for the federal government. No apostrophes, says Big Brother’s little brother.)

        However, though the name Warner is based on a German surname through the Anglo-Saxon. This is what House of Names says about it: “The origins of the name Warner are from the ancient Anglo-Saxon culture of Britain. It is derived from Warnier, a Germanic personal name. It is composed of two elements: warin, which means guard; and hari, which means soldier.”

        Now my fight with her over the name has become a metonymy of sorts. Because the town was settled by families of Scots who came across the river on Mr. Warner’s ferry just after Oklahoma statehood. And, being Okies, they’re just by heck not going to allow the federal government to change the name of their town because some consorned federale typesetters don’t want to take the moment it requires to put the apostrophe in. But the Scots Warner’s Crossing-ites are willing to take it all the way to another Battle of Pinkie Cleugh if necessary, to beat down the name-naming feds.

        The battle over the name reflects well on my character as she gets drawn into battles with paranormal–not necessarily supernatural, except maybe for one–creatures and monsters.

        The thing is, in her world, The Thing and some things apostrophe, are toast.

  3. “For all intensive purposes” comes to mind.
    (But I like Old-timers — I always thought it was an intentional play on Alzheimer’s)

  4. I like “nick it in the butt” instead of “nip it in the bud” but when I corrected this young person, he said, “That doesn’t make any sense.”

    I’m also amazed at how often I read “per say” in newspapers and magazines.

  5. TO be fair, you did pick on modern news site writers. Many of them would have difficulties passing 6th grade English class.

    I did once get in a “discussion” with a news writer over assimilation and a simulation. Pointing out one is merging into a group and the other a mock up of the real thing did no good. I tried.

  6. I live in earthquake country and felt we’re long overdue for a trembler. Now you’re telling me I have to wait for a temblor? Great. Thanks for this, Elaine. Irregardless, things are about to start shaking 😉

  7. I was once in a board meeting where one of the members said, “That’s a mute point.”

    I immediately started doing the mime thing, with my hands going over an imaginary pane of glass. The poor fellow had no idea why I was doing that, or why other board members were chuckling.

  8. So, is this a new name for Malapropisms?

    This is certainly one of the ways new words creep into the venacular. For the last few days, I’ve been part of a fun comment section discussion at Tor.com under an article on how horse terms which made perfect sense a hundred years ago are changing to other words. “Rein in” often appears as “reign in,” etc. Some of the comments have now evolved into a discussion of “Tiffany” as a first name, and how there may be a possibility of the name being used historically earlier than Tiffany & Co. became mainstream. I’m on the side of Tiffany & Co with a side order of BREAKFAST AT TIFFNEYS.

  9. A friend was writing a business letter and indicated that the competitor’s offer was ‘smoking mirrors’ instead of smoke and mirrors. I loved the image of smoking mirrors. Maybe it could be the impetus for a horror novel.

  10. An eggcorn is not a malaprop, Marilyn. Here’s one of the many explanations:
    Eggcorns, Malapropisms, and Mondegreens | The League of Nerds
    This is what distinguishes the eggcorn from the malapropism. A malapropism also involves substituting one word or phrase for a similar-sounding word or phrase, but the malapropism has no logic to it. They’re usually either one-off mistakes or jokes, like “Hey! I resemble that remark!” (for “I resent”). The most famous eggcorns have caught on with the general public, and no one knows their originators; the most famous malapropisms are quips by fictional characters.

  11. Never heard the term “eggcorn”. I will admit that I was well into adulthood before I realized a certain Johnny River song wasn’t titled “Secret Asian Man”.

  12. As usual, the site is caching so I can’t see any of the 19 comments supposedly already posted. I’m sure by now that someone has picked up on the ‘chest of draws’ error. It’s ‘chest of drawers’.

    Is there any chance that you can get your Word Press caching settings/plug-in adjusted so that comments appear in a timely fashion? On many days, they aren’t visible here in Pacific time until everyone has left for the day.

  13. I’d never heard of “eggcorns,” Elaine. Thanks. I’ll have to work the term into a conversation this week. And congratulations on your new publishing agreement!

  14. I also hate that so many weather forecasters on TV use “likely” as in “it likely will rain.” Despite the “ly” ending, “likely” was an adjective that is synonymous with “probable,” not “probably.” I understand they do so because it sounds cool, and I understand that dictionaries now accept “likely” as both an adjective and an adverb, but I still don’t like it. Every time we choose to change the use of a word rather than teach the correct use, our language gets weaker (witness how quickly a noun can become a verb in the past decade or so).

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