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Words, Aug. 26

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William D. Lindsey writes:

"In the Words column Aug. 12, Ray White asks 'Don't linguists have a name for a phrase that is misunderstood and then the misunderstanding overtakes the original?' I think perhaps the term Mr. White is searching for is 'eggcorn.' "

Could be. According to Wikipedia, an eggcorn is "an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar ... The new phrase introduces a meaning that is different from the original, but plausible in the same context, such as 'old-timers' disease' for 'Alzheimer's disease.' " This is opposed to a malapropism, where the substitution creates a nonsensical phrase, such as Mrs. Malaprop's report of an allegory on the banks of the Nile. A character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play "The Rivals," Mrs. Malaprop gave her name to this sort of error. Eggcorn, a word only a few years old, is supposedly derived from the case of a woman who said eggcorn for acorn.

A cousin of eggcorn and malapropism is the mondegreen, which we discussed previously. A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something that was sung or said, as 'There's a bathroom on the right' for 'There's a bad moon on the rise.' But a mondegreen doesn't drive out the original. An eggcorn may, or at least come close. I see ex-patriots almost as often as expatriates these days, and hone in is gaining on home in.

"Eggcorns seem to be proliferating in American English for a number of reasons," Lindsey writes. "One, I think, is the Internet. People seem increasingly to type out (sound out) online whatever they think they've heard, regardless of grammar, syntax, spelling, or linguistic accuracy. The other factor, I suspect, is that attention to language is just not taught as well as it should be in our school system." He mentions a young man of his acquaintance who "just finished a BA at Fayetteville, and who is bright and fairly well read, but who spells at a level that would have been considered fourth-grade when I was growing up."

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