April 09, 2004

Eggcorn terminology

AEB (as I'll call the anonymous author of an entangled bank ) notes "hand few" used in place of handful. This is a great example of the consequences of vocalization of /l/, the reverse case of "wedding vowels" -- and every day, 20 or 30 internet pilgrims find their way to our site by searching for this phrase.

AEB's livejournal weblog seems to lack permalinks -- the post in question is from Thursday, April 8, 2004 at 11:57PM, entitled "eggcorn: a hand few". Since future readers may have trouble navigating to find it, I'll reproduce it in full here before commenting.

Just noticed someone on E2 writing 'hand few' in the sense of 'handful'; Google is not useful on that two-word phrase (mainly of the type 'on the other hand, few people...'), but restricting it to 'a hand few' gives 169 hits, almost all of which are the eggcorn. Restricting it to UK sites gets only 6 hits, so it's not (just) the SE accents bringing the words closer.

By the way, there seems to be a little discrepancy in what an eggcorn actually is. The very first time it was introduced it was a one-off thing, a mistake one person made by mishearing or misunderstanding, and not widespread enough to count as folk etymology. But pretty soon Mark Liberman is using it for 'sporadic' uses such as 'reigns of power', which is clearly widespread and semantically motivated enough so to count.

The indexed internet changes things. When I got the original message from Chris Potts about "egg corns" for "acorns", I'd never encountered or heard of this mistake before, and thought it was a sort of idiosyncratic non-musical mondegreen. I didn't think of googling for it until later; when I did, I found eggcorns everywhere, though not nearly as many as there are "acorns". Specifically, there are about 200 uses of "eggcorns" or "egg corns", compared to a bit more than 200,000 uses of "acorns", so that "egg corn" seems to have a lexical mindshare of about 1 in 1,000. If there are 400 million native speakers of English worldwide, there might be 400,000 of them who think that oaks grow from egg corns. This is a small minority, but it's much more than one individual's idiosyncratic mistake. The misconstrual is probably not going to spread -- the influence of the standard written language is too strong -- but it's not going to go away either.

Arnold Zwicky has pointed out that "we should talk about nonce folk etymologies vs. successful folk etymologies, with lots of stuff in between". (Arnold also suggests some further taxonomizing of what he calls "reshapings" of words -- read the whole thing!). Anyhow, we've been using the term "eggcorn" for "relatively infrequent folk etymologies". Many of these have a semantic as well as a phonological aspect. This includes the original case -- "corn" is sort of like "seed", and the seed part of an acorn looks sort of like an egg. AEB's "hand few" for "handful" has a similar property, as does another eggcorn I noticed recently: "come closed to" (112 ghits) for "come close to" (513,000 ghits).

As Geoff Pullum has pointed out, eggcorns are tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity:

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.

All things considered, it's surprising only that eggcorns are as rare as they are. I imagine that they are commoner among people who are not over-literate or whose writing system is not highly standardized.

Some eggcorns are sporadic, individual re-imaginings that happen by accident to be the same as creative leaps that others have also made. In other cases, the mistake may spread from one person to another in the course of language learning or later vocabulary acquisition. So far, there is no good information (as far as I know) about the balance and interaction of these individual and social processes. In principle, though, the indexed and linked internet can help here, since we can to some extent look at geography and at (various proxies for) social networks in evaluating the distribution of such forms.

[Update: Daniel Ezra Johnson emails to say

I was wondering if the acorn/corn thing was just coincidence, and found the following at the american heritage dictionary site. it suggests that a similar process is happening for a second time with the same word!

( link) "A thoughtful glance at the word acorn might produce the surmise that it is made up of oak and corn, especially if we think of corn in its sense of .a kernel or seed of a plant,. as in peppercorn. The fact that others thought the word was so constituted partly accounts for the present form acorn. Here we see the workings of the process of linguistic change known as folk etymology, an alteration in form of a word or phrase so that it resembles a more familiar term mistakenly regarded as analogous. Acorn actually goes back to Old English aecern, .acorn,. which in turn goes back to the Indo-European root *o:g., meaning .fruit, berry.."


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 9, 2004 07:07 AM