March 22, 2004

You can't look up everything

A student essay in aesthetics that my philosopher partner was reading as I looked over her shoulder begins thus: In the art world there is the age-old ad itch "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Indeed there is such a proverbial saying. But the word the student meant to use for such sayings is adage.

The error is, of course, of the type that here on Language Log we long ago decided to call an eggcorn, a kind of word creation due to a mishearing that a glance at the written form would normally have corrected. (There are now so many posts about eggcorns that I am not going to attempt to make a list, but here is a recent observation of Mark's on the topic.)

It would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known. One could say that people should look things up in dictionaries, but what should they look up? If you look up eggcorn you'll find it isn't there. Now what? And you can't look up everything; sometimes you think you know what you just heard and you don't need to look it up. Someone says something about "the Oxford/Cambridge boatrace" and you just assume that Oxford and Cambridge hold a race that involves boats of some kind (correctly, as it happens). You don't go rushing to the dictionary to look it up, to make sure they didn't say bone trace or beau treize rather than boatrace. You're an intelligent native speaker; you have a right to just trust your ears and your brain sometimes. And sometimes in consequence an eggcorn is born.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 22, 2004 07:21 PM