November 02, 2003

Lady Mondegreen says her peace about egg corns

What label to put on errors like egg corn (for acorn)? In a recent posting, Geoff Pullum accepts Mark Liberman's earlier argument that "folk etymology" isn't quite right, because the reinterpretation hasn't spread yet, and (possibly with the example of "mondegreen" in mind) suggests the label "egg corn". Certainly, if any existing label fits for egg corn, "folk etymology" is it. Fact is, we're pretty short of labels for kinds of reshapings of expressions.

A folk etymology is a reinterpretation of an expression as having parts that aren't etymologically justified. Usually this involves messing with the phonology (as in cockroach from cacarootch from Spanish cucaracha), but it wouldn't have to; I've collected Shiffer robe for anglicized chifferobe, with no change in pronunciation (but also spellings with a, ae, and e, indicating a mid vowel rather than a high vowel). In any case, every folk etymology started with reinterpretations by individual folk. Some, like the hardy cockroach, win the day, some, like sparrow grass for asparagus, spread only within a region or social group, and some never get off the ground socially, which is what I take to be the case for egg corn at the moment.

Maybe we should talk about nonce folk etymologies vs. successful folk etymologies, with lots of stuff in between, but the original impulse is the same in all of these cases: to find meaningful parts in otherwise unparsable expressions.

As for reshapings in general, they can affect pretty much any aspect of an expression: (1) how it's divided into parts; (2) how the parts are related structurally and semantically; (3) what lexical items or morphemes are involved; (4) how any of this stuff is pronounced (or spelled); or (5) what the whole thing means.

For (1), there are the classic recuttings, for example, with a(n) either attracting an n from the next word or losing it to the next word.

Pure cases of (2) are harder to find. Here's a possible example: inside and out for inside out (as in His pockets was all inside and out -- from a witness in a trial, so I never had a chance to interview the speaker further). My guess was that this fellow understood inside out as 'both inside and out' (asyndetic conjunction) instead of as 'having the inside out', and simply restored the conjunction. The existence of a fixed expression inside and out 'both inside and outside' (hundreds of thousands of hits on Google) would have encouraged his reshaping.

For (3), there are classical malapropisms: There's a connection, no matter how obtuse [obscure] it is. For (4), phonological reshapings: nucular for nuclear. For (5), private meanings -- ritzy taken to mean 'tacky', from its occurrence in derisive contexts -- metaphoric extensions, and metonymic extensions and contractions.

Some reshapings involve several aspects at once. Mondegreens are global mishearings affecting all aspects except possibly phonology -- and usually phonology is swept along as well.

Some reshapings are subtle, and have no standard names. What's the label for misidentification of lexical items, all other things remaining constant? As in the following tale.

I have a friend who creatively (and cleverly, but unconsciously) reinterprets the parts of all sorts of expressions. I write I've said my piece, and my friend thinks it should have been I've said my peace. Several other -- highly educated -- folks chime in on his side, and they provide rationales for their version of the idiom. (This kind of reshaping wouldn't have to result in a respelling, but things are very clear when it does, and when the writer defends the new spelling.)

So we start with the five-way division above (the parts of which aren't mutually exclusively, but let's keep things simple). We cross that with the distinction between advertent (I meant to say that) and inadvertent (oops!) reshapings -- between classical malapropisms and Fay/Cutler malapropisms, for example. And then cross these with at least a two-way distinction for idiosyncrasy -- between, say, egg corns and standard examples of folk etymologies, like cockroach. And then cross these with a distinction between production-based reshapings (the typo Zqicky) and perception-based reshapings (the misreading that leads to the spelling Fwicky). That gives us at least forty types of reshapings. We're way short in the terminology department. And we haven't even considered reshapings that are done deliberately, usually for humorous effect, as in puns.

Well, the labels are useful for pointing to similar phenomena in different languages and in different circumstances (speaking vs. writing, for example). But they have no special status in linguistic theory or in psycholinguistics, and they shouldn't be multiplied beyond necessity.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 2, 2003 10:52 PM