Word Matters Podcast

Eggcorns, Mondegreens, and Spoonerisms—Oh My!

Word Matters, episode 96

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Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, slips of the tongue and errors of the ear. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: Eggcorns are, for all intensive purposes, errors, but they're errors worth digging into. I'll grab the shovel.

Emily Brewster: When I was in sixth grade, my class was learning calligraphy. I think it was in an art class, and I was very pleased with my calligraphic skills. And so was a friend of mine, and we were comparing, and he suggested that we have a kind of contest to see who could actually make the most beautiful calligraphic rendering of a particular phrase. So I took this challenge and the phrase that we were to write down was, "Excuse me, while I kiss the sky." And so I wrote down in my best, best calligraphy, very, very carefully this line from a very famous song that I did not know. And I wrote in my best calligraphy, "Excuse me, while I kiss this guy." Meanwhile, my friend of course wrote down, "Excuse me, while I kiss the sky," because he knew the Jimi Hendrix song and I did not.

Ammon Shea: Had your friend suggested this as the exercise?

Emily Brewster: Yes. He was a Hendrix fan.

Ammon Shea: I'm willing to go out on a limb and suggest he knew this was a fraught phrase.

Emily Brewster: I don't think he did. This is sixth grade. I think he probably assumed that I knew the song, which actually was famous. What he didn't know is that I was pretty much just full on Karen Carpenter, so I had no idea about Jimi Hendrix at all. I don't think he knew because he was truly surprised when this is what I ended up writing. And I don't even remember who won. I think actually the mis-rendering, the mishearing, the whole contest was really just ruined. But I later learned that there is a term for what I did. And also what I did is a really famous example of this particular phenomenon. And that is the word for this mishearing of something, this misunderstanding of a song or of a poem or something is called a mondegreen, M-O-N-D-E-G-R-E-E-N. And it is one of various different kind of slips of the ear that English speakers have. Do you all have any mondegreens that you have ashamedly learned later on that you had been repeating?

Ammon Shea: I think I mainly just lean more towards mispronouncing words to a sufficiently embarrassing extent that I don't even need mondegreens. I manage to embarrass myself just with regular old words.

Emily Brewster: You say all the lyrics correctly then?

Ammon Shea: I think I just avoid saying the lyrics out fear of pronouncing the words wrong.

Peter Sokolowski: He didn't lay a trap for you, but it is a trap of language isn't it, that we hear what we hear? For me, it's a crystal clear one, which I maintain to this day isn't a mondegreen, but better than the lyric, which is “Lucy in the sky with Linus.” And I was young enough, that made perfect sense to me, and it still does.

Emily Brewster: I love that one. Yes. So instead of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," the Beatles lyric, it is “Lucy in the sky with Linus,” because the Peanuts cartoon is incredibly important.

Peter Sokolowski: I was probably even younger than sixth grade at that time, so I'm sure I wouldn't have understood an LSD reference of any kind for another good 10 years. And even then, it would be very abstract and difficult, but these are traps. And in particularly with lyrics, you mentioned Karen Carpenter, a lot of pop music isn't as clear as that, even Frank Sinatra. There were very few words you wouldn't understand in a kind of older style of pop music. And from the Beatles forward really, actually from rock and roll forward from the very early R&B, all of those early R&B songs that became rock and roll that's when things became kind of cluttered, and also the balance in recordings was different. The guitar would be as loud as the voice, for example.

Ammon Shea: Isn't mondegreen itself a mondegreen?

Emily Brewster: It is.

Ammon Shea: It actually comes from a song. It doesn't come from a rock song, does it?

Emily Brewster: The word mondegreen was coined by journalist Sylvia Wright. It was in the 1950s. She was talking about a Scottish folk song, the Bonny Earl of Morray. "Oh, they have slain the Earl of Morray and laid him on the green." But she heard, "Oh, they have slain the Earl of Morray and Lady Mondegreen" instead of, "and laid him on the green." “And Lady Mondegreen.” She was including, instead of increasing the information about this setting, about where this guy was slain, putting a lady in there. When you think about the amount of time that people primarily heard poetry and songs without reading them—just knew them auditorially. This is how we think of the epic poems of yore. I'm sure that there were mondegreens happening then too.

Peter Sokolowski: And you wonder about those epics. The tradition of Homer is presumably an oral one. The legend of Robin Hood was a spoken one for possibly centuries before anyone wrote it down. And so, who knows how many elements of those things came from some kind of misunderstanding, but the misunderstanding that is governed by a logic of a kind.

Emily Brewster: That's right. A mondegreen succeeds because it makes sense. It is compelling in some way.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Lucy and Linus. I mean, it makes sense. And there must be a million of these.

Emily Brewster: Well, a very famous one in addition to “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy," another really famous one is Credence Clearwater Revival's song "There's a bathroom on the right," instead of "there's a bad moon on the rise." I like that one, because you're in a bar and you're like, where is the bathroom? "There's a bathroom on the right." Just, it's helpful. It doesn't actually seem like a likely lyric in the song, but it still is compelling in its own way.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, our brains, in a sense they're hardwired to seek meaning. We're going to connect dots, whether we can see all of the correct lines or not. So we create meaning where there isn't any sometimes.

Emily Brewster: Right. My father's name is Richard. And when he was a little boy, he thought that the Pledge of Allegiance had a section where you were supposed to insert your own name. "The United States for Richard stands, one nation under God," because there he was standing, right? It's "for which it stands," but he thought it was "for Richard stands."

Peter Sokolowski: That's a great one.

Emily Brewster: I assume that most of us have these tucked away in our histories, these mishearing misunderstandings, even though Ammon denies it.

Ammon Shea: I'm sure I do it. I'm just in blissful ignorance of which ones I'm mishearing and misremembering.

Emily Brewster: There's another common one that's more recent, that is a favorite in my family. There's an Eminem song. "I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed." But people sometimes mishear it, and there are very funny TikTok videos of people making a video too. "I'm friends with the mustard that's under my bed." I like that one. I think that's pretty good.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. More slip and errors ahead. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.miriam-webster.com by using the promo code "matters" at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We'll continue our exploration of eggcorns, mondegreens, and spoonerisms.

Emily Brewster: Mondegreens differ from several other kinds of errors that we make. Another kind of error is the eggcorn.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's a great name. It sort of exemplifies what it's talking about, right, in this case?

Emily Brewster: That's right. An eggcorn... This is a term that was coined by the linguist Jeffrey Pullum and he named this phenomenon eggcorn. It is an example of itself. Someone misunderstood the word acorn, A-C-O-R-N as the word eggcorn. That's how this person pronounced the word. This is how this person understood the word. The idea being that it's the egg that hatches an oak tree. It's a little corn that grows into an oak tree. It's an eggcorn.

Peter Sokolowski: Looks like a little egg.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Why not?

Emily Brewster: So the only difference really between mondegreens and eggcorns, they both have to kind of have this logic to them. They both have to make sense. They are both primarily a mishearing of an established phrase or of an established word. But the eggcorns are more isolated. They're not from some kind of lyric or some song or poem that has been written by someone else. They're more isolated.

Ammon Shea: I have a very distinct eggcorn that is in fact eggcorn, which is that for years when I would hear this at first, I thought people were talking about inkhorns and inkhorn is more or less a lexicographical term for the kind of very fanciful, extremely long, usually Latin and Greek inflected words that lexicographers and other people came up with in the 16th and early 17th century. They were also called aurea terms, meaning gold words. And for years I always thought, "Man, everybody else has got a really different view of what an inkhorn is than I do. I really think of inkhorns as like the kind of fanciful coinages of Edmund Phillips…

Peter Sokolowski: Phillips.

Ammon Shea: Right, right. Edmund Phillips and John Bullock. And they're talking about a very different kind of inkhorn, and I was always too embarrassed to ask why their inkhorn was different than my inkhorn. And then I eventually realized it was an eggcorn.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a fantastic story. It brings in so much about dictionaries and about you, frankly. A lot of what you have created as a scholar was the consequence of teaching yourself, of being self-motivated and autodidactic. And so it makes perfect sense to me that you would've encountered the word inkhorn, which is a really kind of niche term for the type of dictionaries monolingual dictionaries in the early modern period of the English language most people have never heard of. But of course, eggcorn is a term that I only learned a few years ago as an adult. So the fact is, we were already kind of functioning in the dictionary world when I encountered this word. In fact, I know Jeffrey Pullum and I've met him a number of times, but I learned this word far later than the time when I first met him. I don't connect them particularly. It makes good sense that he did coin it. He's a very witty and charming and brilliant man.

Emily Brewster: I really like the idea, Ammon, of you being aware of this term and not really wanting to raise the question of your possible misunderstanding of what an eggcorn, inkhorn was, because the world of lexicography and linguistics is such a doggy dog world.

Ammon Shea: Yes, it is.

Peter Sokolowski: For all intensive purposes.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Doggy dog world, of course, is an eggcorn, as is for all intensive purposes. It should be dog eat dog world. Although, you know, a doggy dog world, I like that eggcorn so much because it really challenges the idea on a linguistic front. A doggy dog world sounds really friendly. It doesn't feel like there's a lot of threat or animosity there, but the actual phrase is dog eat dog world, which really just is very evocative.

Peter Sokolowski: I wonder how many of these are little chunks or fixed phrases or idioms like those that are heard so frequently as a chunk? I don't listen to the three elements of dog eat dog. I just know, oh, it's a world that's very competitive. So I just take it semantically and not lexically. I don't really understand it as a grouping of individual words, but as a little chunk. There's a lot of such examples.

Emily Brewster: Oh, there are. And you are right that most eggcorns are not individual words like the word eggcorn itself. Most of them are phrases like for all intensive purposes, instead of for all intents and purposes. There's also nip it in the butt, instead of nip it in the bud: you nip something in the bud, you pluck off the bud of a plant before it is able to flower. Nipping somebody in the butt sounds more like a product of a doggy dog world.

Peter Sokolowski: And there are some that come from pet phrases or catch phrases. A famous example is big league as a modifier. Big league reporter, for example, or a big league victory, which was often understood as bigly. It's an unfavored adverb, and many people go to the dictionary to see is that really a word. Analysts looked very carefully at the sort of visual representation of recorded sound of that particular politician who used to use this term quite frequently. And it turns out he was always saying big league, but many of us heard it as bigly. But of course, if you're speaking quickly, that's exactly what happens. It's a consequence of language. I'm sure it happens in all languages too.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I find interesting about this is that the way that language works is usually when we have a case like Chester drawers, for chest of drawers, we do not enter the eggcorn. But every once in a while, an eggcorn kind of becomes successful. And as is the case with buck naked and butt naked, in which we do enter both. And it began as buck naked in the nineteen-teens. And then in about 1970, people started using butt naked as a variant, presumably because it makes sense as many such kind of mishearing or misapplications of language do. It makes sense in that you were naked enough that you could see somebody's butt. And butt naked took off 40 odd years after buck naked, and it's clearly a mishearing of the original. We do enter both of them now.

Emily Brewster: Yes we do. And butt naked actually makes more sense than buck naked. Right? What I recall is that the origin of buck naked is really unclear. It could have to do with the deer buck, the male deer.

Peter Sokolowski: Who doesn't wear clothes.

Emily Brewster: Right. Who has fur as do all the other deer. There is no logic, really, to what is the original phrase.

Peter Sokolowski: And Ammon's right. I mean, it shows how language works. We get into this descriptive/prescriptive mission of dictionaries, which I think is sometimes a straw man argument, but many people say, "Well, if an error is repeated frequently enough, then you just put it in the dictionary because you have no standards.” And that's not exactly right. If some term like this is used by many people and so frequently that it gets into print and it's found in books and magazines and newspapers, then our job isn't to pass judgment but to record it, to notice it first, and then to catalog it with the rest of the language.

Emily Brewster: When a phrase or a word is doing the job, if it actually does the job of communicating a meaning that is widely recognized as the meaning, it's a tool being used to do a particular thing and it's our job to define it as such.

Peter Sokolowski: And no one would misunderstand it. If you were just in fluent conversation to hear someone say butt naked and you had never heard that before, in the context and in the rhythm of the conversation, you would understand it. This is how presumably something like "I could care less" became part of the language. Now, part of that I suspect is just simply because "I couldn't care less," the negative part of couldn't is the unstressed part of that particular sequence of syllables, and so if you're speaking quickly, you could easily swallow and unstressed syllable. That's why they're unstressed. That's what happens in English. And so, of course it contradicts logic, but logic isn't always the same as language.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Especially when it comes to idiom, and the prominent parts of that phrase "could care less" just has a function all in its own. And whether the "n't" is there or not is, as far as communication goes, as far as bare communication goes, it's irrelevant.

Peter Sokolowski: Again, in context, it's probably always understood exactly as it was intended.

Emily Brewster: But there is also the widely despised phrases and words that people use that are distracting to a listener or a reader because they're so roundly understood as being terrible, terrible errors.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. And this gets some of the famous ones. It really is what dictionary people call usage. Imply for infer. Flaunt for flout. Those are two examples of things that the copy editor catches, things that people look for and listen to. And ultimately of course, in context, in conversation, those terms are always understood exactly as they're intended. And really what we reveal is that we are among the club of people who notice that flaunt was used for flout, in this instance. That's one of the things about being very careful about language use that's kind of a reward also, that if you're very careful, then you'll never cause someone to sort of scratch their head as they're either listening or reading what you say.

Emily Brewster: But if you focus on it a lot, then all over sudden, you will find that you are being pedantic. "All over sudden" is another.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a great one.

Emily Brewster: You like how I did that? I was working on these eggcorns all over sudden. I like that one also, because again, I guess I like the eggcorns that really defy logic to a degree, because I just think they're funny. Another one is day-today. So the established phrase is “day hyphen to hyphen day.” From one day to another day, day-to-day. “From this day to that day. But we now see “day hyphen today,” T-O-D-A-Y: day-today. And again, if it functions, the meaning is not lost unless the reader is so distracted by the structure.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's really where you get to what usage means for professional editing, for example, is to not distract from the meaning and the direction of the piece. And these conventions are established by the habits of long, long, long histories of publishing. And so, respecting those things ends up becoming this circuit, in a way, because the editors enforce the more conventional approaches to these things, and then we become accustomed to those conventions, and then the conventions are continued.

Peter Sokolowski: And that's an important part of language. It's an important part of reference. It's an important part of dictionaries because there's kind of an idea that a dictionary is supposed to have authority because it's permanent, because this idea of it was always this way. “My teachers told me this.” “My parents taught me this.” That's never really true, because language always is moving in slow motion. However, there is a kind of illusion of permanence that we want and cling to, and we really want people to spell words correctly as they are in the dictionary and use these meanings in the right way. And so innovation, something new that you've never seen before, you just scratch your head and you're taken out of the narration or the news or whatever it is you're reading.

Emily Brewster: I see the power of editorial voice and the proofreading voice and the professional writing voice as really very much receding these days. What most of us see in our casual reading, if we're on social media at all, is the unfiltered text of someone who is probably not a professional writer or editor. I think that's really fascinating too, and I actually assume we will see more examples like butt naked, becoming fully established because we see so much more informal writing and it does therefore spread more quickly. And so these eggcorns are very likely to become more frequently accepted.

Ammon Shea: I think that's true. And I think it's a very exciting time that we're seeing so much unfiltered writing. It showcases the creativity of people's natural language use and the kind of glorious messiness of the English language. One of my favorite research moments that I ever had was a few years back when Jesse Dewitt, who works at Merriam here with us, he and I took the entire corpus of writings from Early English Books online. So we took about 65,000 or 85,000 texts that were digitized and we alphabetized them. So we alphabetized several billion words of text.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, tell people how old these Early English Books online are.

Ammon Shea: Well, they go from more or less 1435 to about 1702. So several hundred years of old, more or less, what we think of as old English writing. Though it was not actually Old English, the language is just older books. So this is Shakespeare's century and several hundred years before. And we took all the several billion words and alphabetized them, and then we took out all the repeats, so we just had an alphabetized list of the words that people used. And the thing that was immediately apparent was how spelling was not consistent. For instance, we found that there were more than 100 different ways of spelling the word acknowledge. I admit acknowledge is a difficult word to spell, but most of us stick within two to five variants of it. And to see more than a hundred of them, it was astonishing how many different ways you can spell this word.

Ammon Shea: And this was not an unusual word. There were other words which probably had presumably many, many more ways of spelling them. And so, this is kind of what happens. I think this is both a cautionary tale, but also like what happens when nobody's minding the gates and stuff. There are no editors, there's no rules, but it also worked out just fine. Nobody was saying, what is this word? It's obviously acknowledge, just a weird way of spelling it. People still could read the books. We can still read the books hundreds of years later. The language still functions in the language.

Peter Sokolowski: It makes me think about the production of text even in printing, which goes back to just about the beginning of that time period that you're talking about. And of course there were no dictionaries as we know them today. There were polyglot dictionaries or word lists, and certainly there were bilingual dictionaries, especially for Latin and Italian and French, the Renaissance languages. But if you were a printer or a typesetter, you didn't necessarily have a go-to reference, like the standard book that everyone would look to, which is the way that the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is used by typesetters and printers in many, many, many places in the United States today to determine, simply, does that word have a hyphen? Does it have two Ls? Where do I break this syllable if I have to go to the next line?

Peter Sokolowski: Those kinds of questions have been really standardized over time, but there were no standards for that entire period you're talking about, which is kind of fascinating. It shows the production of a huge amount of literature and text that was kind of unregulated in the ways that we think of today. And Ammon's point is exactly perfect, which is of course they were still producing literature and still producing a lot of useful texts.

Emily Brewster: Right. It was actually naturally regulated by the users of the language, not by an authority.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: It was just, if this works, then it works.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, here's the thing. I think a dictionary is really the greatest example of consensus that we as a species have ever produced. Because in the case of English, it's 1000 or more years of trial and error, and we finally decided that we're going to spell this word with a silent "K" and it's going to stay there because it has some bearing on the history of the word, has no bearing on the meaning, but word like knight (in shining armor_, or even acknowledge, which we don't always hear that as a "K." So those conventions happen over time. And it's right; it's not one person. There's no traffic cop who's saying yes and no to every one of these decisions.

Emily Brewster: Before we leave this topic of errors, there is another kind of error that we have not yet talked about. And this last category of error is called a spoonerism. We define it as “a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words, as in ‘tons of soil’ for ‘sons of toil.’" This is an unintentional transposition, a switching of sounds. These are not typically picked up and used because people think that they are correct somehow. They are accidents of speech, but I'm a big fan of spoonerisms.

Emily Brewster: The name comes from a British clergyman and educator named William Archibald Spooner. And apparently, he just naturally came up with spoonerisms very, very frequently, and it seems, was constantly speaking to audiences. And so there are all these anecdotes about him just saying absolutely ludicrous things. There was a time when he was giving a speech and Queen Victoria was in the audience and he said, apparently, "I have in my bosom a half-warmed fish," when he actually intended, "I have in my bosom a half-formed wish." I do just absolutely love a spoonerism. And my 11 year old son comes up with spoonerisms all the time. It's a game that he plays. Recently we were talking about party favors, which he spoonerized into “farty pavers.”

Ammon Shea: He has a talent.

Emily Brewster: Definitely.

Ammon Shea: A natural gift.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: It's very playful. It's a playful use of language.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: Although, don't we define spoonerisms as an error, right?

Emily Brewster: It's not good English.

Peter Sokolowski: But it's usually unintentional. Although if you're really playful, you can swap those initial sounds like that, and just kind of have fun with it in a kind of poetic way.

Emily Brewster: Yes, you can intentionally make spoonerisms, but I think spoonerisms are a phenomenon that also just occurs in the speech of some people.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: I have done them by accident from time to time, and I think they're good fun.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting too. It's because it's purely coincidental that the resulting sound also makes sense in some kind of way. If you say President Reagan or resident pagan, it makes us laugh because it does actually mean something. It just means something else, and it may or may not have a bearing on anything. But you realize, oh right, the language is actually building blocks in some ways.

Emily Brewster: That's right. In a true spoonerism, I think you wind up with something that does communicate meaning. You don't wind up with two nonsense words or two nonsense syllables.

Emily Brewster: If you have any spoonerisms or mondegreens or eggcorns that you would like to share with us, we would love to hear them. Write to us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

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